Ten Quick Ways to Invigorate Board Meetings

Board members invest a tremendous amount of time and energy at board meetings. A few simple changes can often make that investment pay off in important ways. Make a resolution to implement at least one of the following ideas this month:

1. Supply name tags for everyone at 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. Make a chart of frequently used external and internal acronyms (such as CDBG for Community Development Block Grants or DV for domestic violence) and post it on the wall of every meeting. (If you distribute the list on paper, it is soon lost.) The chart will help people unfamiliar with the acronyms know what others are talking about.

3. Write an anticipated action for each agenda item. Examples:

  • Finance Committee report, brief questions and answers: Anticipated Action = no action needed.
  • Volunteer recruitment and philosophy: Anticipated Action = form committee of three to four board members.
  • Public Policy Committee: Anticipated Action = approve organizational statement to city council on zoning changes.

4. Make sure that each person says at least one thing at every board meeting. This is the board 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. Avoid one-way presentations from staff. If you have a regular executive director's report on the agenda, or if a staff program director is giving you a briefing, be sure that such presentations need a response from the board. If not, put such reports in writing in the board packet and just ask if there are any questions.

6. Don't include committee reports on the agenda just to make the committees feel worthwhile. If a committee has done work but a board discussion isn't necessary, put the committee report in the board packet. In the meeting be sure to recognize the committee's good work and refer people to the written report. Schedule committee reports according to the topic at hand, rather than at every meeting. For example, if a discussion is planned on attracting and retaining staff, reports from the finance committee and the personnel committee will be more useful and more memorable.

7. On the agenda, have an open-ended discussion on at least one of the most important matters facing the organization. For example, discuss the economic downturn, changes in government funding, possible reasons for declining preschool enrollment, a competitor organization, the possibility of losing donated spaceaEUS-aEUSwhatever matters are keeping the leadership awake at night.

8. Encourage "dumb" questions, respectful dissent, and authentic disagreements. Find a chance to be encouraging, at every meeting: "Sylvia, I'm glad you asked that aEU~dumb' question. I wanted to know the answer, too." "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 fifteen 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?"

And a bonus suggestion: once every year or two, survey board members 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 what's 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?"

This article and dozens of others are in Jan Masaoka's new book, Best of the Board Cafe Second Edition, to be released in September of 2009. Click here to be sent an order form when they become available.

See also:

Comments (19)

  • These comments are great, but not for nonprofits that have no paid staff but rely on board members to run it. how can those board meetings be streamlined and made less ornery?

    Aug 17, 2009
  • The things on this list can be done, even with groups of volunteers and nonprofits with no paid staff. I've led in both instances. The key is in the strength of the leader (President of board, or large committee chair).
    If the group's leaders can effectively delegate, vision cast and provide accountability, it can be done, but it takes discipline. In some cases, it takes awhile to change the status quo mindset of the "book report" meeting.

    Aug 26, 2009
  • Anonymous

    Most of the comments ARE applicable to boards with no staff. With no staff, there will be less paperwork (reports will be given orally with highlights in the minutes). Members don't need name tags if "tent cards" with their names are brought out and placed in front of each person during each meeting. But, the president should be engaging the board as suggested.

    Apr 20, 2010
  • Hooray for getting rid of committee reports. Some committees meet just to report they met, but nothing they report has relevance to what the Board is discussing.
    Agenda items should focus on strategic goals. Get people talking about what the organization is doing and should be doing. Most committee reports don't do that.

    Aug 17, 2009
  • I agree with all of the above, especially reporting. Meetings are so much better when the staff and committees submit written reports and time is spent on clarification and actually making decisions.
    I just want to point out that board members are a great source of perspective for an organization. I worked for a national organization that met face to face once a year for two or three very intense days. In addition to all you mentioned, we also made a point of beginning meetings with personal updates so board members could transition to the meeting and be fully present, and also so others could be sensitive to a member who carried a significant weight. This was implemented after successive meetings where someone would reveal at the end of the meeting that they had come from a sibling's funeral, or just received a diagnosis of cancer, or a parent was in the hospital. Talk about having perspective before you begin a discussion!

    Aug 18, 2009
  • I am 90% in disagreement with your #6. The ability to report at the board meeting is one of the ways the work of committee chairs and their committees get "paid". I don't agree with letting them report "just to make the committees feel worthwhile" but I do believe in having them report no matter how little they are doing; it's an accountability thing. Its also strategic...if the committee is needed and not productive, the board needs to be keenly aware of the hole in its programming strategy. If the need for the committee has passed, the board needs to keenly reminded. Relegating committee reports to the board packet or letting unproductive committees "hide in the board packet" is not, in my humble opinion, good board management.
    Bob Horton, MS
    CEO-Trinity River Environmental Education Society

    Aug 18, 2009
  • I agree. It has been my experience that board members tend not to read what is in their packets unless it is brought to their attention at the board meeting. Furthermore, the board as a whole should know what the committees are (or are not) doing, whether the committee is serving its intended purpose, moving forward with projects, etc.
    I believe the same is true of staff reports. Perhaps they don't need to be read verbatim, but staff should at least highlight what is in their reports.

    Aug 19, 2009
  • Anonymous

    Regarding Bob's comment on #6 - we include all the committee reports in the board packet, and on the consent agenda for the Board meeting.
    As an event is approaching, or if there is a concern, the committee chair will be asked to present an update on their work. This does not apply to the finance committee who always give their report, answering any questions.
    I love the idea on #7 - having an open ended question - I'm passing this on to my Board Pres & the Vice-Pres. thanks!
    Colleen A. McGauley, MPA
    CASA of Kern County

    Aug 18, 2009
  • I love this list! :) I firmly believe that if a leader can run efficient and effective meetings, they can set themselves apart from the rest. Another awesome resource for leading great meetings is "Death By Meeting" by Patrick Lencioni. Its got some good examples of all types of meetings in the last section of the book.

    FYI, I just passed on this post to all of the members of the two boards I am on! :) Thanks for the post!

    Janna Rust

    Aug 19, 2009
  • Great topic! Another suggestion for invigorating a Board meeting -- start the discussion with a podcast or news item that relates to the main meeting topic. One great source of podcasts on nonprofit governance is available at www.BoardStar.org.They are usually less than 10 minutes in length, and best of all -- they are free!

    Aug 20, 2009
  • Another board agenda item(s) to 86: reports from appointed positions, unless board chair determines that there is something critical to report. For example, our state association had some appointed positions to our national association and they took up time at the board meeting reporting on national news, and usually nothing of interest to the board or audience. Most of us felt that it was more ego-stroking than valuable reporting. They should have submitted a written report for the board packet that the board could refer to beforehand and if questions/discussion was needed, there could have been agenda time allotted to that.

    Love this list! Now if only we could all get it implemented....

    Aug 25, 2009
  • I love the list! I have been working to establish a regular meeting SCHEDULE for our small, all-volunteer working board for a long time, and finally, about a year and a half ago, achieved that goal. BUT, I still have to wrangle with officers who really want to tell all the details about their month's doings, and with how to really engage ALL board members at each meeting. :-( I guess I'm not the leader who is going to set herself apart from the rest.
    I think it SHOULD be expected of Board members to read material between and before meetings if it is provided. (And as the person who has always done the preparation of board packets in my organization, I think it is only fair considering the effort it takes to PRODUCE the packet!). Maybe if the reports are not being read or understood, the annual poll of the board can get at how to make those reports more engaging. Will doing a graph help? Will a short training session work? Are reports focusing on the "wrong" information or not giving board members insight into what they need to do?
    I've served on quite a few boards during my career; most people on the organization's board have rarely served on even one. I think being a good board is a real art -- and I am at a loss sometimes how to encourage more participation. You can't get a report made from a committee if no one on the board is willing to take on the committee project!

    Aug 27, 2009
  • We also do a consent calendar for committee reports, but I really like the idea of asking a specific question about each report when warranted. The committee reports are simply minutes from its last meeting in lieu of trying to get a more condensed version (won't happen).
    Ruth Peterson, Sustainable San Mateo County

    Aug 31, 2009
  • One of the boards on which I serve, the Millikin-Decatur Symphony Orchestra Guild, occasionally has a music group play during our noon lunch. Members seem to look forward to the meetings, and it relates to our mission of supporting musical activities in Decatur.
    By: Paul Rosenberger

    Jan 25, 2010
  • Anonymous

    I love your list to Invigorate Board Meetings. Hopefully board members followed these ways.

    Apr 26, 2010
  • Anonymous

    These techniques purported to invigorate instead seem to me like standard best practices for a board meeting - or any meeting at all.

    We've practiced these 'tips' at all of our board meetings as standard operating procedure. While they do contribute to a smoothly running meeting and the flow of discourse, they do nothing to promote engagement and innovation, nevermind invigoration.

    Would love to see a post that offers some truly innovative ideas for getting a board to be productive and invested.

    May 28, 2010
  • This one is key:- 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. I've sat in way to many boardroom meetings where it was not only stuffy hot, but the only food was sugar laden cookies & doughnuts. Talk about sugar highs! Bring on the fruit! Steve

    Mar 04, 2011
  • Anonymous

    Really enjoyed reading the post. All the points said are appreciative Specially 6 and 7. Other points that can be added to make a successful board meeting could be Bring an informed point of view, Be upfront, open and honest, Establish a template and stick to it.

    Jun 20, 2011
  • Love this, have incorporated many if these things over the years. Juanita

    Feb 19, 2013

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