The Board Experience
Ask people about their experiences on nonprofit boards, and answers can be downright jaw-dropping, “The meetings aren’t productive,” “This wasn’t what I expected when I joined the board,” or “I don’t see how these meetings make a difference”. We join boards to make our communities healthy, vibrant places, to use our time and talents to support causes we care about, and to become part of a network that shares our passion about issues important to us.
A troubling new norm is developing — we start believing this “rather dull” experience is what we should expect. Many people tell me, “Well, that’s just the way it is.” Although, I believe that’s not the way it has to be.
This norm is that it a rare experience for a board member (or CEO) who thinks prior to a Board meeting, “I can’t wait to go to the meeting today, I expect to be inspired and energized.”
I think about this a lot. I have spent the last 20 years serving on numerous boards representing of all types of organizations — local, municipal, regional, and national. I have also served as a CEO to four community organizations and have worked with some extraordinary people. And, I have the joy of engaging in the extraordinary Board meeting where everyone said, “Wow that was great, we accomplished so much, I can’t wait until we meet again!” In short, I have left board meetings exhilarated and I have left board meeting exhausted. Given the choice, I will pick exhilaration any day!
Often we leave Board meeting feeling like the greatest accomplishment was “we ended on time.” For a room full of intelligent, committed people this is deflating. This doesn’t happen because the people aren’t committed, it happens because often the structure isn’t designed to focus on the most important issues. We approve the minutes, give reports (and more reports), and bemoan the budget situation. We don’t spend much time on the “good” stuff” — what have we been doing right for the community, for our organization, for our clients? And, how can we do more of it even better?
Highlighted below are 10 tips for making Board meetings more engaging, productive and enjoyable.
1. Focus on the most important issues. Plan to discuss the most critical issues first. What do we need to discuss/accomplish to move our mission forward. Support this by: placing the organization’s mission and vision on the top of every Board meeting agenda. This keeps members focused on the key reasons they are there; to support the mission and vision the organization has for its community. Start each meeting with discussion about the most important issues on the agenda first.
2. Determine if it is Decision/Advice/Information. When discussing important issues, clarify how you are asking members to respond. On each agenda item note: 1) does this issue need a decision, action or vote 2) does this issue require advice or guidance, is this an issue that the organization is seeking collective wisdom to make the best decision, or 3) is this an agenda item that is for information purposes, to inform and educate board members. Again, place the most important issues on the top of the agenda. (“Act” and “Discuss” first, “Report or Information” second).
3. Create Opportunities for Creativity, Imagination and Vision. If the rule in real estate is location, location, location, the expectation for Boards is vision, vision, vision. Create opportunities for the board to spend time focusing on vision; the vision they have for the community how the organization is meeting this vision. Ask them, what is the legacy you want to leave?
4. Create an Outcome Measurement Matrix. Create a chart updated at each meeting informing the Board about how organization is doing in critical areas: program and impact, fundraising, financial health, Board of Directors engagement, human resources and risk management/compliance. Use a matrix or dashboard metric to show process on quantifiable measurements. Color code progress to goals (red=act; yellow=watch; and green=celebrate). Use the matrix to focus on important areas without searching though pages of reports. An excellent example of a good dashboard is available on the Blue Avocado website (www.blueavocado.org).
5. Change it up. Host meetings at different locations and consider incorporating different formats into the meeting agenda. If there is a major issue that needs discussion, break people up into small groups for 10-15 minutes, then have groups briefly report back. This gives everyone a chance to engage in the conversation. When people engage, people commit.
6. Include Stories and Testimonials at Every Meeting. Stories are powerful. Include at least one story about someone affected by the organization at every meeting. People want to hear about people. Share the stories of those who benefit from your organization’s great work. Testimonials are inspiring and give members stories to tell when they go out to fund/friend raise for your organization. Stories give members the information they need to serve as champions, ambassadors and advocates for your cause.
7. Build Trust. Create trust by creating a culture where confidentiality is respected, engagement is encouraged and final decisions are presented to the community with “one voice,” Ask members to leave negativity and cell phones at the door.
8. Spend twice as much time discussing as reporting. Create opportunities for people to engage, deliberate and contribute.
9. Reflect and Evaluate. Take time to reflect. We tend to plan to implement and miss the opportunity reflect and evaluate is an important part of the process: (plan-implement-reflect). Conduct an evaluation of the Board at the end of the year. During the year provide feedback cards for optional thoughts and comments. If members have feedback there is a venue to share comments with the board leadership or CEO.
10. Celebrate! Annually (or more often!) share the organization’s accomplishments with the Board. Ask members to take part and share what they think are the greatest successes. Take time during every board meeting to celebrate at least one major accomplishment and take time to acknowledge the excellent work of individual Board members and staff who have gone “above and beyond.” Celebration and focusing on the positive can have a contagious reaction that impacts the organization, board and staff. Make sure to take time to celebration the organization’s accomplishments.