Manage Effective Board Meetings

BoardroomMany nonprofit organizations operate board meetings, but not as many do so effectively. With our experience facilitating hundreds of board engagements, we have identified the components necessary for most board meetings to become more productive and more relevant to the short-term and long-term goals of the organization.

Preparation

Board meetings begin before the board gets together.

  • Board members should receive relevant materials three to five days in advance of the meeting. Materials can include financial reports relevant to the upcoming meeting; business filings; new proposals; an agenda; metrics demonstrating programmatic effectiveness; etc.
  • Sending information ahead of the board meeting offers several benefits. For example board directors can familiarize themselves with information and prepare detailed questions, which allows meetings to follow a tactical focus, rather than a strict report-based approach. Advance notice of controversial or high-sensitive information avoids surprising board members at meetings, decreasing emotionally-charged responses often derails the agenda set during board meetings.

Logistics

  • Ensure board meetings begin and end on time. Adhering to a set time enforces the idea that you value the board’s time. Board meetings tend to be more productive when all board members understand that ideas, questions, and discussion has a clear beginning and end.
  • Ordinary, routine items such as the presentation of the minutes should be mentioned at the beginning. The conclusion of the meeting should announce the date, time, and location of the next meeting as well.

Agenda

  • The majority of the board meeting’s discussion should be focus on strategy decisions, led by the board chair and executive director. In most cases, the purpose of the discussion isn’t so that the board can make an immediate decision. Instead, consider the meeting as a platform to help the board understand predicaments and opportunities in greater detail. This allows board members to share their individual perspectives and expertise.
  • Key elements of committee reports should be emphasized. For example although development reports should be sent to the committee prior to the meeting, discussing the updates and opportunities related to development further engages the board in fundraising.

Recognition

  • Sharing recognition within the board is important because not only does morale raise, the practice demonstrates the skills and behaviors that are appreciated and how board members can help. This can look like the board chair beginning meetings by appreciating board members who have provided an important contact, secured a new financial contribution, or acquired a valuable resource.
  • The board chair should end meetings by thanking board members for their effort and commitment. Clear, tangible ways that board members can assist the nonprofit’s goals until the board meets again should also be offered by board chair.

While no two organizations are exactly the same, no two boards operate the same. The above steps provide a guide for newer boards to use as a foundation to create a robust board culture. More experienced boards can use the steps above as a checklist to see where, if any, holes exist that’s preventing boards from reaching its potential.

If you’re board needs guidance, consider visiting our board development page.

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Ingredients for a Strong Board Culture

recent Stanford study reports, “Over a quarter (27 percent) of directors do not believe their fellow board members have a strong understanding of the mission and strategy of the organization.” Our experience supports these findings pointing to organizations lacking the infrastructure and resources needed to train, set goals, and evaluate what their boards need in order to be effective.

After facilitating hundreds of board development engagements, there are core ingredients that bubble to the surface as necessary for building a strong and effective nonprofit board. These characteristics center around board culture including communication, group dynamics, and accountability to name a few.

Perhaps you’re seeking to strengthen your board and propel your organization to new heights. Consider incorporating the following:

Build an atmosphere based on trust

Relationship dynamics are at the heart of board culture, and sometimes there are tensions between the executive director and the board or the board chair’s power is imbalanced. These types of dynamics can create a culture where board members are disengaged, misdirected, and distracted from advancing the mission of the organization. It’s important that executive directors and board chairs set the tone and create an atmosphere where board members can create relations based on trust, mutual respect and transparency. Executive directors can demonstrate that they value their boards by sharing more information and fostering an open atmosphere.

Invite diverse viewpoints

  • Diverse groups attract a mix of different personalities and communication styles. Embrace and leverage the diversity of thought within your board. At times, it will require patience and an open mind. Use different perspectives from your board, even those that are contrarian, as opportunities for the organization to grow and learn. And for executive directors, the more you can understand the logic behind opinions that dissent from yours, the better decisions you will make and the better prepared you will be to defend your own position, if needed. Create a culture where board members feel comfortable enough to respectfully disagree, as long as they’re able to offer a well-thought out rationale for their opinion.

Ensure individual accountability

  • For more than two decades, Fairmount has spoken with hundreds of board members serving on small, start-up nonprofits all the way to well-established anchor institutions. Board members frequently express that they are not asked to use their skills in a meaningful way that can assist the organization. Nonprofit executives and board chairs can empower board members by increasing responsibility for certain tasks. This demonstrates confidence in board members and allows them to enjoy a sense of ownership of their work.

Assess board effectiveness

  • Many nonprofits fail to evaluate the effectiveness of their board – as a group and for individual members. Unfortunately this fails to deliver critical feedback about strengths, areas to improve, and the potential for new opportunities. Useful board evaluations can include metrics like examining how well the board works together or identifying the collective knowledge of the board and how effectively that information is used. When evaluating individual board members, executives should consider more than resumes and qualifications but also measuring activity during board meetings, the quality of suggestions, and propensity to involve other board members during meetings. Executives who also evaluate their own effectiveness and share that perspective with the board helps display transparency and fairness – ingredients that earn the respect of the board.

Improving board culture doesn’t happen overnight. Culture changes by examining the board’s collective and individual strengths and weaknesses, while taking consistent action to implement changes. The steps above offer a foundation for nonprofits seeking to begin creating a stronger board culture.

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Transitions: New Executive Director & The Board

Transition events – moments like starting a new job, moving to a new city, ending a relationship – present opportunities to reflect and identify new goals worth fulfilling. Nonprofits experience many transition events, with perhaps none more significant than the arrival of a new executive director. Smart nonprofits will recognize this change as a chance for the board and new executive director to reevaluate aspects of the organization and its programs that can be improved.

What’s vital for a successful nonprofit leadership transition?

Early priorities listed in detail

  • The incoming executive director needs to outline in clear language where his/her initial focus will be and their expectations for the board. This approach sets a  transparent image about where the executive director envisions taking the organization next, while establishing expectations for board members. Board members who understand their role are more likely to meet and exceed expectations.

A forum for honest communication

  • Incoming executive directors don’t know many details about the organization they’re taking over. The board holds much of this information, information that would better inform the executive’s decision-making. But the board is unlikely to share these beneficial details with the executive unless they feel genuinely heard and safe to reveal truths. New executives who schedule listening tours focused on information gathering without judgement can make board members feel comfortable.

Agreement among board members to embrace the transition as a chance for reevaluation.

  • Before the arrival of a new executive, many organizations have strategic initiatives they’ve been working on for months or years. While some initiatives continue to operate because they’ve been successful, the arrival of a new executive director can be a great point look at those initiatives to see just how well they’re working and if there are opportunities to modify them or determine if they’re worth doing at all. The exercise can benefit the organization, but board members must acknowledge that the change in leadership may mean that some traditional programs may have to be put on hold or altered.

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All I Want Is D-I-V-E-R-S-I-T-Y

All I want is D-I-V-E-R-S-I-T-Y doesn’t register as smooth as “Respect”, Aretha Franklin’s 1967 hit, but today’s nonprofit sector could use the anthem.

Research tells a familiar story:

  • Only 8% of board members are people of color
  • Nearly 33% of nonprofit boards don’t have a single board member of color
  • Only 5% of philanthropic organizations are led by people of color
  • 74% of the nonprofit workforce are women, but only 45% are on boards.

Before nonprofits ask how they can diversify their boards, they should be clear about their motivation for change.

A weak reason to increase diversity is “because we’re supposed to.” A better reason is “because we believe that diversity opens our organization to unique perspectives that makes our nonprofit smarter, more inclusive, and better equipped to thrive among complex challenges and new opportunities.” Exalting diversity’s value is more difficult in a politically correct era where organizations rarely publicly denounce diversity.

But the nonprofit boards that don’t seek greater diversity within their board suffer. Homogenous boards are vulnerable to blind spots in decision-making and environmental cues. Opportunities that may be obvious to one ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or culture might be missed. Similarly a nonprofit board’s diversity speaks volumes about its level of inclusion. This impacts internal staff and volunteers who notice whether an organization’s leadership seeks out inclusivity in their actions or just talks about it in their annual report. The difference can be employing multi-faceted staff and volunteers who’re engaged or watching alienated members of staff seek other places to work or volunteer.

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