How To Improve the Productivity Of Your Board Meetings
Imagine trying to run your organization if meetings were outlawed, as they are in most military dictatorships. Urgency and secrecy would make meeting time precious. Applying that “if-meetings-were-illegal” concept to a nonprofit organization can help you get the most out of the meetings you do hold.
- You would hold as few meetings as possible and only when absolutely necessary.
- You would set concrete objectives for every meeting.
- Meetings would be briefer. Wasting time would be worse than foolish — it could be dangerous.
- Only people with ideas or information vital to the meeting’s agenda would be present.
- You would handle as much communication and coordination outside the meeting as possible.
You’ve probably attended meetings as focused as that, although without the risk of arrest. You can, however, strive for — and achieve — that level of productivity. To start, a chief executive must have a strong working relationship with each member of the board.That relationship is a foundation for positive communications. Understanding the personality and priorities of each board member helps you anticipate how the board will interact. With that insight, you can help the board make the most of its time.
Immediately following each board meeting, begin planning for the next meeting. The chair and the chief staff executive can share their observations and insights on the board meeting just completed. This analysis can include the following: • Major accomplishments at the meeting;
- Motivations of the board members;
- Dynamics of the meeting process;
- Unresolved or potential conflicts;
- Board members’ roles in the meeting and in general;
- New business for future agendas;
- Updating plans for future chairmen and officers; and
- Improvements to the general meeting process.
Carefully scrutinize agenda items for the next session -- especially if committee reports and other special documents will be involved. When you send the announcement for the next board meeting, include the agenda and all supporting materials.
Pick a Date, Any Date . . .
Board service is a major commitment that volunteers generally take seriously. But the traits that make a person an asset to your board -- expertise and leadership in the industry and standing in the community -- also mean you’re competing against other demands on his or her time. To minimize this problem, publish a schedule of board meetings a year in advance. Only rarely will you be able to find dates that are open for everyone. If that happens, inevitably several board members will call you shortly before the meeting about last-minute conflicts.
Set priorities in establishing dates. Start with the officers and work your way through the list of other board members. If you know that the long-range planning chairman will have an important report to present at the midyear meeting, then check with that chairman before setting the mid-year meeting date. If a certain event related to your field or industry affects board members’ work or travel schedules, plan around that date. This is especially important if the event, such as a major allied industry conference, occurs on a regular basis, such as the first week of November each year.
Once you set the schedule, stick to it. If you habitually reschedule board meetings, board members may become loathe to change their own schedules. And changing travel plans costs money.
Many organizations believe board members must attend a certain percentage of meetings. Some nonprofits go so far as to provide in their bylaws that any board member who misses a specified number of meetings is automatically dropped from the board. Another, more moderate, policy is to state in the bylaws that a record of meeting attendance is kept and furnished to the nominating committee for its consideration in the nomination of existing members of the board to subsequent terms.
Discussions and Decisions
The groundwork for most board decisions is laid long before the meeting itself. The appropriate committee chairman or other person most familiar with a particular issue should give a summary report, including a recommendation.
Most meeting time is spent reviewing or deliberating such reports. Therefore, whenever possible, distribute summaries in advance. The wisdom of the board results from the pooling of the viewpoints of its members, and the best decisions generally come after an issue has been thoroughly discussed. Moreover, discussion creates active participation and a sense of involvement and responsibility.
Therefore, build ample discussion time into the board meeting schedule. Don’t schedule 15 committee reports on the agenda for a three-hour meeting when you know the board will spend at least half an hour discussing each of three particular reports.
Reaching consensus may mean longer decision times, but you’ll experience fewer problems down the road. Consensus building techniques depend on the individuals involved. One board member may be overbearing and opinionated, making it difficult and frustrating for others to express their views or ask relevant questions. You can compensate for this potential obstacle by soliciting opinions before the meeting, via telephone, fax or mail.
This strategy gives you a preliminary feel for what each board member thinks. You can then anticipate and, possibly, deflect clashes. You’ll also have information and options ready to present. This process builds a platform for talking through pros and cons and gives board members a chance to formulate positions and questions. (A caveat, however: This approach also has the potential to foster or support faction-building among board members.) Much of the decision-making process happens outside the meeting room. If the board becomes gridlocked on an issue, often one of the board members will move to “table” the discussion. You can then take the points of discussion back to the committee or other work group and develop different options to present at the next board meeting.
Give the Process Time
Consensus takes time, discipline, information and respect for differences of opinion. Decisions arrived at heavyhandedly leave doubts and trampled feelings. They also lead to a lack of support in implementing decisions that affect the entire organization.
And because board composition generally turns over periodically, improving productivity is a never-ending process. But it’s worth it.
If the nonprofit auditors at Dugan & Lopatka, CPAs can be of assistance, please call us at (630) 665-4440.