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How to Improve Nonprofit Board Meetings

by Michael Davidson

The Problem

For many organizations, board meetings are a problem rather than a solution.

board meetings, transition planningFor staff, they create anxiety and time-consuming activity to "get ready," and mostly relief when they are finally over.

For board members, they are too often seen only as a "duty." Boards can be deeply engaged for episodic decisions, such as a CEO transition, a financial crises, merger, major strategic decisions, etc. Mostly however, board meetings are a time to see friends, offer reactions to the Executive Director's report, vote on technical matters or check email while reports are being read. Much of the agenda is designed to make sure that no one can later say that the board was not "informed."

On a well-functioning board, oversight and supportive work is accomplished in the committees. The leadership of the committees and the Executive Committee is trusted to bring matters to the board when there are concerns or when a board level decision is needed. There is usually very little that actually requires a meeting of the full board.

From a legal point of view, only one board meeting a year is really required--an annual meeting for a financial report and elections. Theoretically, all of the necessary business of the board could be accomplished in committee, voted on by the Executive Committee and ratified at the annual meeting.

We could reduce the number of board meetings or, in the alternative, think about how the meetings can be used to fully engage the attention of the board and to best serve the organization.

A proposal

In an important article, recently re-published, Ryan, Chait and Taylor, offer a suggestion I find very persuasive.

If boards approached the question of how to use down time explicitly, rather than lament the absence of a perpetually strategic agenda, they might in fact become more valuable assets to their organizations. Boards could construe learning about their communities or constituencies as vital, continuous preparation for governing... organizations could use their meetings to promote learning by all board members. Board members could construct and pursue a learning agenda through field work, meetings with other boards, or extended interaction with constituents.*

What a radical idea--using board meetings to provide opportunities for boards to develop a deep understanding about the organizations they govern!

Michael Davidson, is a consultant specializing in nonprofit board development. He is the former Chair of Governance Matters and lead consultant for the BoardServe NYC program of the United Way of New York City.