I spend a lot of my life at board meetings. And typically I think, “Gad, this is boring.” Too often these are meetings where various and sundry people drone on, telling the rest about something—a budget, a committee decision, a new project. The board members usually seem to be elsewhere—thinking about dinner or something they need to be doing.
Honestly, it doesn’t have to be that way.
Having a more engaging board meeting means having a more engaged board. That means giving them real and important work to do. And that means understanding the assets they bring to the table. So yes, John is a lawyer—but perhaps his real skill and passion is community engagement. You won’t know that unless you have a real conversation with him.
Board assets also include the networks they are involved with and the skills they possess that could help your programs.
What they bring to the table is critical. What they know about your program is essential.
Using board meetings to have an educational component can help to make them more interesting. One meeting you might consider bringing in program people; at another bring in someone who can discuss the larger issues surrounding the work you do. Fundraising training is always important, but so is one on how to read our financials and what they really mean.
We say we want board members who will give us their time, their talent, their treasure and their tentacles, but in reality, it is only the latter two that we ask from all of them.
When we do use their talents, it tends to be asking the CPA to be our treasurer, the lawyer to look at a contract, the financial planner to serve on our finance committee. Think how much more rewarding board members would find using the skills and talents they have honed over years to grapple with some meaty issue facing the organization. For example, very few nonprofits have real succession plans in place. Have a facilitated discussion about succession planning at the board meeting, asking one of your board members to be that facilitator.
Board members can be really helpful in looking at program fees or administrative functionality. They can help shape ways to improve public relations. And, while we always want them to fundraise, are there other funding opportunities staff hasn’t explored? What about the issue of increased competition—not just for dollars but also for the things you do. How should you be responding to this?
In short, find real things for board members to do and use your board meetings to discuss these issues thoroughly.
Another important way to increase participation is to divvy up the various roles. Starting at the top, there is no reason why the President or Chair or the CEO of the organization should lead on every agenda idea. Identify other board members to take the lead on certain topics.
Assign someone as a timekeeper, making sure discussions stay on track, and someone or several someones to chart ongoing comments/issues on a flip chart. This is not the minute taker, but someone who helps the board see where discussions have been and where they are heading.
When things come up in board meetings, before saying, “Yes, we’ll find out and get back to you,” consider asking a board member to take that on. Pair the board member with staff, if necessary, but make it the board member’s responsibility. The only caveat here—and everywhere—is to remember to only do this with high level, strategic items. Yes, ask your board to help map out a more productive way to do something; no, don’t ask them to assign staff and to oversee the day to day results.
By making your board members active partners in the organization and making board meetings real work rather than listing to reports, you will find less boredom, more excitement and more committed members.