When you hear the words “Nonprofit Board Meeting,” what comes to mind? How do you feel?
I’m willing to bet I know the answer.
In one word, “UGH.”
If you are like most nonprofit leaders, the thought of a Board meeting creates feelings of dread, the blahs, the “let’s get it over withs”, the “I don’t have time for this” mindset, or the “I don’t know why we even bothers”.
VERY rarely does the thought of a Board meeting make you feel excited, hopeful, or positive.
If you had one big complaint about your typical nonprofit Board meeting, what would it be?
Here’s what we hear most often:
- The meetings are way too long and boring.
- I’m tired of doing all the talking while my Board stares at me!
- The conversation easily gets off-track, and before you know it, 30 minutes have passed and we haven’t even discussed important business because we’ve gotten off on a tangent again.
- Nothing gets resolved or done in these meetings!
- Some Board members can’t get a word in edgewise because one or two Board members take over and monopolize the time.
- Nobody shows up on time. Then, they want to leave early.
- Nobody comes prepared.
- We have Board members that don’t even show up half the time!
Any of that sound familiar?
Well, have no fear.
WE GET IT, and we’re here to help!
Your Board meetings don’t have to feel like a dreaded chore.
You CAN have an organized, efficient, and yes – even FUN — Board meeting.
You just need to make a few adjustments first.
Take Your Nonprofit Board Meeting Back to the Basics
Before we get to the meeting itself, let’s back-track to some basic foundational pieces that will make everyone’s lives easier.
Why is doing this important?
Because most of what makes your Board meetings a bummer stems from Board members not understanding how this works.
They don’t know their job or what is expected of them.
And they probably don’t know what their role is in leading the nonprofit.
It’s your job to educate and manage your Board — especially if they don’t know what to do.
There are two things that can help A LOT here: organizational by-laws and Board member job descriptions.
What do by-laws have to do with Board meetings?
Your nonprofit’s by-laws should include details about how often the Board meets, what percentage of attendance at these meetings is required to form a quorum (so you can officially vote on things!), and what the voting and decision-making process will be.
If your by-laws do NOT include these things, you and your Board need to make this a priority to create these policies and amend your by-laws as soon as possible.
By creating by-laws, you’re setting a standard for how your Board must function. Think of them as rules or guidelines.
Every Board member should have a job description that they read, sign, and agree to before taking a Board position, outlining their basic roles and responsibilities.
Again, if you already have a Board in place and do not have job descriptions, you (as a Board) need to discuss these items and get them created, agreed upon, and signed as soon as possible.
You’ll need specific descriptions for specific roles (President, Secretary, Treasurer, and any other officers you have on your Board) as well as a job description for general Board members.
Without these two things in place, you may struggle, so it’s best to get these nailed down as quickly as you can.
The truth is that everyone wants to do good work and do the right thing. In the absence of knowledge of what the right thing is, your Board is probably swinging in the dark because they truly don’t know what is expected of them.
What’s on the Agenda?
Don’t try to run a nonprofit Board meeting (or any meeting really!) without an agenda.
It’s impossible to get anything done or to keep the group focused without one.
Create a habit that one week before your Board meeting, you ask all Board members if they have any topics they’d like to discuss.
Include those items as you create an agenda. Then, send this agenda out to every member of your Board a couple of days before the meeting so everyone has a chance to look it over ahead of time.
Additionally, send out any other information that all Board members should have in order to feel equipped and up-to-speed for the meeting. These can be things like:
- Minutes from the last meeting
- Financial reports
- Any background information about any items you are putting up to a vote
- Fundraising or marketing items that need approval
Your agenda should confirm the date, time, and place of the meeting.
Use a Consent Agenda
A consent agenda gives you a way of structuring your meeting so that you can handle the routine things quickly, leaving more time for important conversations.
It helps you spend more time looking forward, rather than looking back.
Think about it: if all you do at your Board meeting is go over reports from the previous month, you’re looking back.
Wouldn’t you rather be talking about what’s coming up? Or more importantly, discussing strategic issues that the Board NEEDS to be addressing?
The way a consent agenda works is that you agree to email out ALL information a week or so ahead of the Board meeting, and all Board members agree to review the information before coming to the Board meeting.
That means they read and understand the information they received, including meeting minutes, financial reports, and ALL OTHER reports or information.
When the meeting starts, someone makes a motion to approve everything on the consent agenda (minutes, financial reports, all other reports), you vote, and BOOM! Done.
You get to skip the part where you read the minutes out loud or where someone points out a typo (neither are a good use of your time).
You also get to skip the committee chairs who take up time rehashing what’s in their reports.
If someone has a legitimate question, they call the appropriate person before the Board meeting to ask. Questions about minor issues can be handled in those calls. But if it’s a bigger issue that needs the full Board’s attention, it’s saved for the meeting and that particular item is pulled out of the consent agenda and placed on the upcoming agenda. The full Board gets the chance to talk about that particular issue, then approve that one item individually.
As you can see, a consent agenda is a huge time saver!
And it will save your sanity, too, because you can spend your precious meeting time talking about things that matter.
Overcoming Challenging Board Members
Almost every small or new nonprofit Board has problems.
Practical/tactical stuff like processes and systems is easy to fix.
People-problems are harder to fix.
We all have problematic people on our Board– those that never speak. Or the ones who never stop talking. Or the ones who take you way off-base.
If you have a good Board Chair or leader running the meeting, there are a few tricks you can use to overcome challenging Board members.
Here’s how to remedy those situations in a non-confrontational way and keep the flow of your meeting going while keeping the peace.
- Challenge: Blabby Betty
Betty just has so much to say, and she can’t wait to say it! One agenda item is mentioned, and that is Betty’s cue to break into lengthy stories and opinions, basically hijacking the conversation.
- Solution: Redirect. Repeat after me: “Great, Betty. Thank you! Now, let’s hear from the other Board members because I want to make sure that everyone gets a chance to share their thoughts!”
- Challenge: Know-it-All Norman
No matter what is being discussed, what has been accomplished, or what needs to be planned, Norman has done it bigger and better. Norman knows more than you do, and Norman is quick to correct anyone else with differing opinions and experiences.
- Solution: “Norman, it’s great that you bring so much experience to the table! I’d like to hear from our other members, though, so they can speak without being influenced by your knowledge or experience.”
- Challenge: Silent Susan
Susan typically doesn’t speak unless spoken to, and even then, her answers are very short and very quiet. Susan has little to no confidence, so she’s afraid to really speak up. She isn’t comfortable sharing her opinion – especially if it differs from others. Plus, Blabby Betty mows her down.
- Solution: Ask Susan to run the meeting. Yes, that’s what I said! You have the agenda in place already. Ask Susan to take the lead role and guide the meeting through the agenda. This will hopefully build her comfort level and help her to become a stronger contributor. She will probably have more to say at the next meeting!
- Challenge: Distracting David
Oh, David. You know David. He’s the one that somehow manages to turn a conversation about the next fundraiser into a story about his nephew’s baseball game. How did we get here? Nobody really knows. What we do know is that David is a time-sucker and that nobody really wants to hear about his nephew right now.
- Solution: Redirect. “David, we’re going to go ahead and move on because time is short, and we have a lot to cover.” Or “I think we’re getting off base here. Can we take that topic offline and talk about that outside of the Board meeting?”
- Challenge: Negative Nellie
Nellie is the one who will point out all the possibilities of something negative happening. She’s really big on “what if’s” and “we should haves”.
- Solution: Delegate the what-if’s to Nellie. “Nellie, that’s a great point and we need people on the Board that look at the flip side. Why don’t you start putting together a contingency plan in case that happens” or “Yes that’s a valid point. That’s not actually on the agenda tonight, but submit a request for the next meeting and we can dedicate time to this topic.”
- Challenge: Fence-Sitter Frank
Frank really wants everyone to like him. He agrees with everyone. Whatever you think is best is fine with Frank! He’s also most likely a bit under-qualified for his role, but he wants to help so darn bad that he went for it. Frank is a really great guy, but when it comes time to roll up your sleeves and act like a Board, he freezes. He can’t make a decision, or if he does, he waivers on it. Frank often says things like “I was thinking the same thing!” and “I wanted to say that, too.”
- Solution: Ask Frank for his opinion first. And be prepared to wait. Don’t influence him. Just be patient.
- Challenge: Whirlwind Wendy
Wendy blows in about 10 minutes late, and she looks like she may have been caught in a windstorm or a cyclone on the way to the meeting. She’s probably trying to stuff all of her things into her oversized purse, while other things are falling out. And, she’s known to make a big, exaggerated tip-toe movement and a face that says “oops” every time she arrives.
- Solution: Do not wait for Wendy. Acknowledge her, ask her if she can quietly take her seat, and tell her she will need to catch up later. If this is a common problem, the President of the Board needs to speak with Wendy about her responsibilities and commitment and to get herself there on time. Her being late is disrespectful to those who got themselves there on time.
- Challenge: Clueless Cliff
Cliff didn’t read the minutes, has no idea what’s going on, and possibly never opened the email that contained the agenda. He wasn’t aware that he was supposed to bring an idea, and, in general, he seems flustered and a bit lost.
- Solution: Publicly remind Cliff that an email was sent to all Board members with information for the meeting, and it always goes out a week ahead of time. Ask him if he’d like to use a different email address to make sure he gets the info. A little public embarrassment can go a long way in correcting minor commitment issues such as Cliff’s.
A No-Yawn Nonprofit Board Meeting
Cleaning up commitment issues, handling challenging Board members, and using a consent agenda to free up time all give you newfound time and space in your meeting to have more interesting conversations.
So, what SHOULD you be talking about?
- Focus on Board-level issues. Your Board is responsible for big picture issues that have to do with governing the organization. Not what type of supplies to order. Keep ALL operational conversations out of the Board meeting.
I remember once when a particular Board member wanted to talk about what to do with some nice microwave ovens that had been donated to our thrift store. I told him that was not an appropriate conversation to have in a Board meeting. “But they’re NICE microwaves” he said. “And that’s why we hired competent, capable staff” I said. See how that works?
- Focus on the future. What’s coming up that will impact your nonprofit? And no, I don’t mean the volunteer picnic next week (though the Board needs to be aware of it).
Your Board should be talking about community or economic pressures that may affect your program. Is your landlord selling your building? Is the town taking back the building you’ve been using for 20 years for the animal shelter?
Your Board should spend time talking about what’s happening and what your response will be if a response is needed. Or what you as an organization need to begin preparing for.
- Brainstorm. Spend a little time kicking around ideas for important topics, like what your gift acceptance policy will be or how much money you need in the bank before you invest some (and what investments will be appropriate for your nonprofit). These kinds of conversations get people thinking bigger and often are very educational for Board members who have never thought about these things before.
Here are some other tips you can use to keep your next Board meeting lively and yawn-free.
Watch the clock. Show your Board members that you respect their time by starting and ending on time. If people want to linger and chat afterwards, that’s up to them. But for the meeting itself, start and end on time. EVERY TIME. If you find that your time is up and you need a little more time to wrap up an important discussion, ask the group’s permission to continue for another 10 minutes before you adjourn.
Stick to the agenda. Manage the meeting carefully so that the important items that need plenty of time and attention are covered.
Meet at different locations. Think beyond meeting in the same place every time. Changing the location can really spark creativity and mix up the energy of the group. Your facility can work well and is usually the first choice. But a Board member’s home can often be a lovely alternative, while still offering a private space for conversations. The right restaurant or park can also work, especially if it’s relevant to your mission or a place that people enjoy going. See what ideas your Board has. Just remember that people are creatures of habit, and if you change the location, you’ll probably need extra reminders for those who don’t pay attention to detail or didn’t see the email or missed the last meeting.
Ask everyone to bring at least one idea for solving a common problem, raising money, or whatever else is high priority. Make this mandatory! You might even kick off this conversation at your meeting by going around the room asking everyone to share their idea and writing it on a white board or flip chart.
Invite a guest speaker. Is there a topic that you want your Board to learn more about? Maybe there’s someone who can speak to something going on in your “industry” or trends that are headed your way. Inviting a guest speaker can invigorate your Board members and introduce new ideas from a new voice that may resonate with them.
Show a video. If it’s tough to get your Board members to come see your programs in action, bring the programs to them in video. A good video can be educational and also reconnect them to your mission. Just keep it short (2-3 minutes is enough) so it keeps their attention and doesn’t chew into your meeting time.
Your Virtual Board Meeting
Running a good Board meeting in person can be hard, but when you’re running a virtual meeting, it’s even more difficult.
People can only sit and stare at a screen for so long before they disengage.
In person, you can feel the energy in the room, and it’s easier to pay attention because you know that others will notice if you start to fidget.
Online, you can play solitaire on your screen, and no one will ever know!
For online meetings, it’s even more important to set and meet expectations about start/end time, agenda, tangent conversations and so forth.
You might need to plan some polls or interactivity about every 10 minutes to help keep people engaged.
For more ideas about virtual Board meetings, check out this guide from Boardable.
Board Meeting Doesn’t Have to Mean “Bored Meeting”
A happy Board of Directors is a productive Board of Directors!
Be creative, be caring, and think outside the conference room to give people a good experience.
The bottom line is that if you want a Board meeting that you can look forward to, you should create a Board meeting that your members look forward to as well!