Board meeting time is deeply precious time, and the fulcrum of board-staff opportunity or disappointment. Let’s be smarter about how we use it.
Bonus: board meeting cartoon at end of article.
Every third Tuesday, or maybe four Wednesdays a year, a nonprofit board meets and discusses a few topics in order. Here’s a traditional board agenda:
Traditional Board Agenda
- Minutes approval
- Executive Director’s report
- Program Director report
- Finance Committee report
- Nominating Committee report
We feel bored just looking at it. The unintentional message: staff is going to talk at us for most of the time and nothing interesting is likely to happen.
Now let’s look at doing it differently:
Our mission: to strengthen the business and social vitality of our neighborhood
(Explanation: board members sit with an agenda in front of them and will look at this piece of paper many times during the meeting. Make use of this by putting your mission and other critical dates or messages at the top of it!)
1. Context and theme for this meeting: remarks from the chair. If you’re the chair, what is on your mind? Frame the meeting for board members by giving them some context:
- “We’re still getting to know our new executive,” or
- “Our main topic is budget — this meeting we’re looking at projections and proposing guidelines to staff. At the next meeting we’ll be voting on it.”
2. Board Member Briefing: Too often our board members bring life experiences and professional knowledge that they never get to share with the board. Instead, take 15 minutes each meeting to rotate among board members making, for example:
- A 7 minute briefing on “Three things I’ve learned from marketing that our organization should be thinking about”
- A 7-minute briefing by a board member who uses the services of the organization, who describes his experiences — good and bad — as a client
Follow the briefing by seven minutes of Q&A for a total of 15 minutes.
3. Upcoming street fair: discussion led by board-staff task force
A core part of the meeting should be focused on substantive discussion of programs.
- Anticipated action: review of themes, suggestions for committee; sign-ups for day (focus the discussion by including an “anticipated action” for most reports)
4. Open-ended discussion on outside factors and how/if they might affect our thinking, such as a new governor, the close of a factory nearby, the opening of a new theatre in town, the aging of our donor base, and so forth. (Explanation: an unfortunate trend is that whenever something open-ended or strategic comes up, someone is likely to say, “we should have a retreat to discuss this.” Instead, have a strategic discussion at every meeting. It is this kind of discussion where everyone both contributes and learns (and probably what board members joined the board expecting to have).
5. Minutes and Commitments Review
Rather than treating approval of the minutes as a perfunctory ritual, use the moment to go over what people promised to do at the last board meeting (whether board members or staff) and check in on progress. Then revise and then approve minutes.
6. Finance Committee report
Everyone always wants to know where the organization stands financially. But maybe even more importantly, every report from the board’s finance committee should answer these two questions:
- Should we be worried about our financial situation?
- At the end of the year, will we be in a strong position to start the new year?
7. Nominating Task Force
- Anticipated action: approve the list of 15 possible candidates from which the Task Force will approach individuals. See: Blue Ribbon Nominating Committee
8. Executive Director responds to questions about items in the written Executive Director’s Report sent out in the packet. The CEO or ED should not give a report that repeats that information. Limit this item to 10 minutes and put at the end of the meeting.
Why does this work?
- The chair’s opening remarks bring everyone to where we are and sets a purpose for the meeting
- The board tracks the commitments members have made
- Instead of standing committee reports, task forces (also called ad hoc or temporary committees) only report when they are bringing decisions or other actions to the board (See: Abolish Board Committees? And Boards Should Only Have Three Committees!)
- Instead of a one-way communication from the executive director, by only allowing questions this becomes a discussion, not a reason to skip reading the written report
- Instead of board members taking the stage only to give committee reports, board members speak bringing their expertise and experiences to the board. See: Board Member Briefings
9. Round robin or reflections: a quick go-around for a word or sentence from each person
Let’s remember that board meeting time is a valuable resource being donated by time-stretched volunteers, and staff time used for the meeting is expensive. We must make thoughtful, smart use of this scarce, precious resource.
If you are a board member: did the last board meeting make good use of the resource of your time that you brought to it?
And now, here’s the bonus cartoon:
About the Author
Jan is a former editor of Blue Avocado, former executive director of CompassPoint Nonprofit Services, and has sat in on dozens of budget discussions as a board member of several nonprofits. With Jeanne Bell and Steve Zimmerman, she co-authored Nonprofit Sustainability: Making Strategic Decisions for Financial Viability, which looks at nonprofit business models.
Articles on Blue Avocado do not provide legal representation or legal advice and should not be used as a substitute for advice or legal counsel. Blue Avocado provides space for the nonprofit sector to express new ideas. Views represented in Blue Avocado do not necessarily express the opinion of the publication or its publisher.