Board meetings don’t have to be boring. And to be effective, they shouldn’t be, experts say. But how can executive directors and board chairs get through long agendas without eliciting yawns from the men and women volunteering their time and skills to govern nonprofits?
For tips and tactics to improve board meetings, The Chronicle talked to four experts: Bob Wittig, executive director of the Jovid Foundation and co-author of Nonprofit Board Service for the Genius; Carol Weisman, founder of Board Builders; Philip Butterfield, a banking executive who serves on three nonprofit boards; and Vernetta Walker, vice president of programs and chief governance officer at BoardSource.
They agree that board meetings should encourage participation from all of the members and facilitate dialogue about pressing concerns. To help overcome some of the obstacles to these goals, here is a list of common board-meeting problems and their solutions. And once you’ve tried these ideas, solicit members’ feedback about whether the new approaches are working, using a tool such as an online survey.
1. Problem: Meetings drag on, sometimes well past the promised end time.
Solution: Shave minutes by planning ahead and raising only essential issues for discussion.
A few time savers:
Use a consent agenda. A consent agenda lists items that require board action but probably do not need much discussion. It is sent to members in advance for review. During the meeting, members vote on the items as a block rather than voting separately on each. If you’re worried that board members won’t read a consent agenda in advance, run a (lighthearted) pop quiz about the document at the beginning of the meeting, Ms. Weisman says.
Have committee heads provide their reports on paper rather than as oral presentations.
Put time estimates next to each agenda item to set expectations for the length of the discussion and help keep the meeting on track.
2. Problem: Board members seem too removed from the nonprofit’s daily work to effectively govern it.
Solution: Incorporate a “mission moment” in every meeting.
At faith-based nonprofits, start with a prayer, Ms. Weisman says.
Take board members on a program visit to gain firsthand experience. When Mr. Butterfield served on the board of the Boys Choir of Harlem, many meetings took place in the rehearsal space, he says: “That was helpful because the relationship between input and output became clear to board members.”
Tell stories — or have program beneficiaries tell their own. Share letters the nonprofit receives (whether complimentary or otherwise); show a video of staff members at work; invite those whom the nonprofit serves to attend meetings and testify about their experiences. “You’ve got to have connectivity to persons you are trying to help,” Mr. Butterfield says, especially so board members can incorporate authentic messages in their fundraising.
At the first meeting of the year, ask board members to share why they joined the board and their personal connection to the mission, Mr. Wittig suggests.
3. Problem: Board members get sidetracked from the key topics of discussion.
Solution: Be a good shepherd and keep everyone on task.
“A board will not hesitate to go where you lead them,” Ms. Walker says. “If you’re directing into the weeds, they will go there.”
Before presenting information to the board, think carefully about the desired outcome, she recommends. If it’s just to keep them informed, save that information for a handout. If it’s a topic that requires discussion, though, it makes sense to present it aloud at the meeting.
4. Problem: Board members lack expertise in topics important to the nonprofit.
Solution: Invite outside experts to speak at meetings, or provide training about financial literacy, fundraising, or other relevant subjects.
For example, Mr. Butterfield serves on the board of a nonprofit orchestra. The group invites experts in 17th and 18th century music from Julliard or the Manhattan School of Music to speak at board meetings to educate members.
To improve members’ fundraising skills, Mr. Wittig recommends asking them to spend part of a meeting simulating a conversation with potential donors and practicing their elevator pitches.
5. Problem: It takes staff members too much time to prepare for every board meeting.
Solution: Use templates and charts — sometimes called “dashboards” — to standardize how staff members collect data and present it to members.
That’s what Ms. Walker does for her own board meetings. “The more you can standardize the information, it does help in terms of cutting down on staff time,” she says. And by presenting financial and program-related data in consistent, visually appealing ways, these tools can help board members more quickly discern the nonprofit’s state of affairs and aid them in their decision making.