Dani Robbins

Board Meetings: Privileged to be in the Room

In Non Profit Boards on June 3, 2014 at 5:05 pm

Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR), which if you are not familiar is generally included among the best publications in our field, recently invited me (and others) to the Better Board Governance webinar with the words: “Many—and some leaders believe most—nonprofit boards are ineffective.”

Many boards are ineffective! It’s true, and when SSIR says it, it gives each of us permission to say it, and hopefully to fix it. It’s one of my personal and professional goals to make this less of the case.

I work with a lot of boards and my goal is always that each and every board member feels privileged to be in the room. Now that’s a pretty high bar, but board members work hard, for several years, for free. It’s our job to make it worthwhile for them.

“We engaged board members initially by talking to them about our organization’s mission, the impact it makes in our communities and our vision for changing our corner of the world. They joined our boards in order to help us do those things – and then we never talked with them ever again about any of it. Ever. Again.

We talk with board members about money, what we spent and why we need more of it; we talk with them about fund raising and why they need to do more of it; we talk with them about the problems we’re having and what we need from them to fix it.

We don’t talk with them nearly enough about what they want, about why they joined our board, and what they hoped to get out of their service.” Not Fund Raising? Not Engaged.

Board members join our boards to help us move forward our missions. We need to spend far more time at board meetings talking about our missions, our clients and how our programs are impacting their lives.

That, of course, means we have to spend less time talking about other things. Or we need to have longer meetings. I’m not opposed to longer meetings. I believe that we each need to put in the time it takes to get the job done. That said, there are a few ways to ways to make sure the things discussed at meetings should be discussed at meetings. Here’s a few ways to make that happen:

The first, easiest and most effective way to have shorter meetings is to have a robust committee structure. Most of the work of the board gets done in committee. Committees make recommendations to the full board, as necessary. Outside of such recommendations, which other than the finance committee should be periodic and not monthly, committees fulfill their chart of work, which is usually outlined in the by-laws and aligned with the appropriate goal in the strategic plan. For more information about committees, please see Board Work via Board Committees.

Board meetings cannot be allowed to become committee meetings. If they are tottering in that direction, the chair needs to send the issue back to committee and invite interested board members to attend the next committee meeting.

Consent agendas are another great way to reduce time spent on some things to allow time for other things, but ONLY – and I really mean only – if your board is reading the things they are voting upon. “When you consider if a consent agenda is right for your board, consider the board members who most often attend. Do they typically read materials in advance or in the room? If they read them in advance, consent agendas can allow more time for robust generative discussions. If they read them in the room, they may not have time to read all the materials and may be voting on things about which they are not entirely clear. If that is the case, consent agendas can create issues of liability for your agency.” Decision are Made by Those who Show Up

The idea is that a consent agenda includes items that the board should see but doesn’t need to discuss; it is expected to be approved in full, but it doesn’t have to be. Any board member can question any item included in the consent agenda, which will then open up the item for discussion. Consent agendas can include the minutes from the past meeting, any committee report that does not need a board vote, and any other materials. Financial reports should not be included in the consent agenda but instead should be presented and voted upon at each meeting.

Hopefully, we have redirected enough time, with one or both of the ideas mentioned, to allow you to introduce mission moments, information about things happening in the world that will impact the clients you serve or your organization and generative and strategic discussions. If not, please do consider making your meetings longer. I think your board members will agree that longer, more effective meetings are preferable to shorter, less effective meetings.

It would be great if you could start meetings by talking about the mission, introduce ideas about strategy in the middle and end with generative conversations. Remember, generative conversation don’t always have answers. “To be or not to be” was probably the first generative question to be posed. Just because there are no answers doesn’t mean it won’t be a fascinating discussion.

Here are some questions to get you started:

Is offering this program the best way to meet our mission?

Should philanthropists only give to the cause they believe in or should they address the largest needs in our community? What, if anything, is their obligation?

What is the government’s role in addressing poverty? What is the community’s role?

Since I started with SSIR, I’ll end with our other venerable institution, the Chronicle of Philanthropy, which last week in their generative article “Foundations Must Rethink Their Ideas of Strategic Giving and Accountability” asked the questions:

“What are our responsibilities as institutions with a growing public role?

How can we add clarity and context to transparency?

What is our real responsibility for showing Impact? How much can or should we control?

How can we improve our working relationship with citizens and demonstrate respect?”

What are some generative conversations you’ve had? What’s been your experience in moving toward generative governance? As always, I welcome your insight, feedback and experience. Please share your ideas or suggestions for blog topics and consider hitting the follow button to enter your email. A rising tide raises all boats.

  1. […] want each and every board member to feel privileged to be in the room. I often do an exercise with Board members and ask them to write down on a piece of paper their […]


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