Ten Quick Ways to Improve Your Board Meeting

board meeting in progress
By Jan Masaoka

3 minutes

Try implementing one per month.

This article is reprinted with permission from Blue Avocado, the practical and readable online magazine of Nonprofits Insurance Alliance Group, for nonprofits. Subscribe free.

When we think about the boards we’re on, we usually think about the board meetings—which says a lot about the importance of having good meetings. Resolve to implement one of the following ideas each month:

  1. Name tags for everyone, every meeting. It’s embarrassing to have seen people at several meetings and wondered what their names are… and later it’s really hard to admit you don’t know their names.
  2. Post an acronym chart. Make a poster of frequently used external and internal acronyms (such as LOS for loan origination system) and post it on the wall of every meeting. (If you distribute the list on paper, it is soon lost.)
  3. Write an “anticipated action” for each agenda item. Examples: “Finance Committee report, brief questions and answers: no action needed.” “Volunteer recruitment and philosophy: Anticipated Action = form committee of 3-4 board members.” “Public Policy Committee: Anticipated Action = approve organizational statement to city council on zone changes.”
  4. Make sure that each person says at least one thing at every board meeting. This is the chair’s responsibility, but everyone should help! “Cecilia, you haven’t spoken on this issue. I’m wondering what you’re thinking about it?” “Matt, at the last meeting you made a good point about finances. Are there financial issues here that we aren’t thinking about?”
  5. No one-way communication from staff. If you have a regular CEO’s report on the agenda, or if a department head is giving a briefing, be sure that such presentations need a response from the board. If not, put them in writing in the board packet and just ask if there are any questions.
  6. Don’t include reports on the agenda just to make the committees feel worthwhile. If a committee has done work but doesn’t need it discussed, put its report in the board packet. (In the meeting, be sure to recognize the committee’s good work and refer people to the written report.) Instead, schedule committee reports in the context of the main discussion. For example, if there is a discussion planned on attracting and retaining staff, reports from the finance committee and the personnel committee may be appropriate.
  7. Note to the board chair and the CEO: what are the two most important matters facing the organization—economic downturn, a competitor organization, demographic changes in the county? Is one of these matters on every board agenda?
  8. Encourage “dumb” questions, respectful dissent, authentic disagreements. Find a chance to be encouraging, at every meeting: “Sylvia, I’m glad you asked that ‘dumb’ question. I didn’t know the answer either.” “Duane, I appreciate the fact that you disagreed with me in that last discussion. Even though you didn’t convince me, your comment helped make the discussion much more valuable.”
  9. Make sure the room is comfortable! Not too hot or cold or crowded. Offer beverages and something light to eat, such as cookies or fruit.
  10. Adjourn on time or agree to stay later. Twenty minutes before the scheduled end of the meeting, the chair should ask whether the group wants to stay later: “If we continue this very interesting discussion, we will have to stay 15 extra minutes to hear the recommendation on the executive director’s salary. Can everyone stay that long, or should we end this discussion and move to that one immediately?”

Bonus idea: Once every year or two, survey the board about meetings. Pass out a questionnaire for anonymous return to the board vice chair or secretary, asking, “What do you like best about board meetings? Least?” “Are you satisfied with the items that are usually on the agenda?” “How could the board chair do more to encourage discussion at the meetings?” “Is the location or time of day difficult for you?”

Jan Masaoka is CEO of the California Association of Non Profits, San Francisco.

Also read "Manage the Greatest Meetings Ever" and "Flip That Meeting." 

Plan to attend Directors Conference in December in Hawaii and CUES Symposium: A CEO/Chairman Exchange in January in The Bahamas.

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