7 Strategies for More Productive Non-Profit Board Meetings

by Joe Garecht

Board Member Frustration

Dysfunctional board meetings are hurting lots of non-profits.  Haphazard and non-productive meetings hamper growth, dampen fundraising efforts, and lead to confusion and frustration among members and staff alike.

Your non-profit’s board of directors meetings don’t have to be tiresome, infuriating affairs.  You can look forward to your board meetings, comfortable in the knowledge that they will move your organization closer to its goals and provide support and encouragement for your staff.

Use these 7 strategies to make your next non-profit board meeting more productive and successful:

#1 – Start with Mission

Board members get tired of the same old committee reports, budget numbers, motions and votes.  Most members joined your board because they care about your mission.  Yet, so many board meetings are utterly disconnected from the mission and vision of the organization.

Rectify this by leading every board meeting with a mission-related item that reconnects board members with the heart of your non-profit.  Have someone your organization helped tell their story.  Ask a board member who is also a volunteer offer a slide show presentation on her work.  Ask a frontline program worker to summarize a day in the trenches.  Your mission matters, so put it front and center.

#2 – Have an Agenda

So many non-profit board meetings don’t have a firm agenda.  Sometimes organizations will have loose agendas, like “1. Old Business, 2. Fundraising Update, 3. New Business.”  Other times, non-profits will run meetings with absolutely no agenda at all.

Board members want to come to meetings to get good things done, without wasting time.  Every board meeting you hold should have a firm agenda that is sent out to the members beforehand and enforced by the board chair.  Include time for “new business” at the end of the meeting for items that aren’t on the agenda.

#3 – Send a Pre-Meeting Packet

In addition to the detailed agenda, every board member should receive a packet of information and resources at least 3 days before the meeting so that they have time to review it and prepare questions.

This packet should include all of the backup items and resources that will be talked about at the meeting.  If your Executive Director is going to talk about the budget, include a copy of the budget.  If your board chair is going to talk about program growth, include a chart and list of growth statistics.

#4 – Start and End Meetings on Time

Many non-profits start board meetings 5-10 minutes late because “our board members are busy people and get here as soon as they can.”  This fosters terrible habits, and makes even more board members arrive late, because they know that your meetings never start on time.

Likewise, if you start your meetings late, you will likely end your meetings late, which is frustrating for board members and staff alike.

Instead, make it a policy to always start and end your board meetings on time.  People will get the hint – they will get there on time, or they will miss something.  They will also know that you value their time because you end your meetings at the scheduled conclusion.

#5 – Make Your Board Meetings about Decisions, not Updates

Many (if not most) non-profit boards focus their meetings on giving and getting updates.  The Executive Director and staff give updates on programs and fundraising, the treasurer gives an update on the budget, and the board committee chairs give updates on their work.  This takes up 80% of the allotted meeting time, and discussions / decisions are crammed into the last 20% of the meeting, when everyone has already zoned out.

Don’t waste most of your time on updates.  Much of the information in your updates can be sent to your board members in the pre-meeting packet or as part of regular e-mail updates to the board.  You only have your board together for in-person meetings once per quarter, once per month, or whatever your board meeting schedule is.  Use that time to hold frank discussions on strategy, and to make decisions that affect the vision and work of your non-profit.

#6 – Don’t Let One or Two Board Members Dominate

Lots of non-profit board meetings are dominated by one or two board members (often the chair) who speak at, not with the other members.  This leads to board members who feel disengaged and who clam up during meetings, no matter how good their ideas are or what resources they can bring to bear for the organization.

Encourage honest and open communication at your board meetings.  Encourage frank discussions.  Encourage everyone to get involved and talk.

#7 – Ask for Action

You should be making asks at your board meetings.  Sometimes, these asks will be for money (such as when you are launching your annual board giving campaign) but more often they will be for action.  Every board meeting you hold should ask for action.

This action should normally be fundraising-related.  Ask members to make 2 introductions for you this month.  Ask your board to hold a non-ask event for you, or for members of the executive committee to each accompany the Executive Director for one ask meeting this month.

Whatever ask you are making of your board, be sure that it is concrete and that there is a deadline for action.  Don’t say, “We really need help finding new major donors!”  Instead say, “Would you each be willing to help John meet one new major donor this month.  It won’t be for an ask, just a get to know you meeting.  Who can help?”

If your organization is running board meetings that are less than productive, don’t get frustrated.  Use these strategies and be persistent.  Most non-profits can go from unproductive to super-productive board meetings with less than a year of effort.

Photo Credit: Phoney Nickle

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