Simple rules for effective meetings of nonprofit boards
Preamble: For your nonprofit organization to function effectively, you need an active and engaged board that can make key decisions and bring in financial resources – either directly through their own contributions or indirectly by making your organization the kind that people want to support. To achieve these goals, you need for your board meetings to be interesting and fulfilling – and for most boards, that means departing from business as usual.
1. Start five minutes late or when 90 percent of those expected to attend arrive. Do not look around and talk about who’s not there yet and say “we’ll wait a few more minutes.” If you already have 10 of the 11 who are expected, then waiting says that the latecomer’s time is ten times more valuable than that of those who arrived on time.
2. Communicate to your board members that you value and respect their time. This is especially important for nonprofits in the human services area that are trying to attract board members from the business community. They come from a world where their time is valuable and valued. This doesn’t always mean “make the meetings short,” but it does mean “make sure that meeting time is well used.” Corollary: Don’t joke about how long and boring your board meetings are. Do something about them.
3. Distribute an agenda and follow it. Move the discussion along.
4. Learn the 80/20 rule. Until you get intentional about all this, you’ll spend 80 percent of your time on the 20 percent of topics that are the least important. Try to reverse the emphasis, so that you spend 80 percent of your time on the topics that are most important. How? Read on.
5. Distinguish “information only” from “board action” items. When “information only” takes up 80 percent of your board meeting, you’re wasting time. You should be asking your board for discussion or a decision once every 15 minutes at a minimum. If you’re not, you’re wasting everyone’s time.
6. Identify “information only” items and ruthlessly cut the time devoted to them. How? When you’re informing your board, have a written report in advance, distribute it, and go over only the most important points. Do not read the report to them.
7. Identify “board action” items and make sure there is plenty of time for discussion. There’s nothing that more surely turns off nonprofit board members than PowerPointing them for hours, then squeezing an important decision into the last five minutes without adequate discussion.
8. Never take more than a few seconds to “look something up.” When someone asks about Joe Smith’s phone number and someone else says, “I’ve got it somewhere in this bag,” immediately move on to the next topic. Do not hold up the entire board while the rummaging goes on.
9. Pass out the drinks right at the start, but hold the snacks for after the meeting. This will make your meeting move at a better pace and will also be a kindness to people on diets and those who are fasting for religious reasons.
10. When the meeting is over, adjourn it. Don’t just sit there waiting for people to leave. Those who want to stay for further discussion will do just that. Those who need to take off can go.