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Cynder Sinclair: Secrets for Planning and Conducting a Brilliant Nonprofit Board Meeting

How would you describe your organization’s board meetings? Engaging, fun, and remarkable? Or boring, tedious, and uninspiring?

Board members give their time and energy to ensure the nonprofit stays true to its mission, so they deserve to be honored for these precious gifts. One way to do that is by ensuring their time is well-spent at board meetings.

As owners and stewards of the mission, board members want to spend their time focusing on issues that will add value to the organization’s work — not on reports and trivial matters.

Creating a brilliant board meeting begins with trust. Mutual trust and respect between the executive director and the board chair are essential to the strong foundation of any organization. These two must work together as a team, each knowing and performing her specific role and trusting the other to do the same.

These two key individuals meet prior to the board meeting to craft the meeting agenda and strategize about their approach to issues and individuals.

Dr. Peter MacDougall, beloved president of SBCC, points out: “Meeting prior to the board meeting ensures that meeting outcomes are well-defined and shared.

Meeting following the board meeting is a valuable practice, as well. It allows the executive director and chair leadership team to assess the extent to which outcomes were achieved, the extent to which board member involvement took place and application of board member skill sets effected.”

Have a consent agenda.

When setting the agenda, consider using a consent agenda or consent calendar. This popular board meeting practice groups routine business and reports into one agenda item. The consent agenda can be approved in one action, rather than filing motions on each item separately.

Using a consent agenda can save boards anywhere from a few minutes to a half hour. A consent agenda moves routine items along quickly so the board has time for discussing more important issues.

Well-constructed board packet a time-saver.

A well-crafted board packet sets the stage for an effective board meeting. If you want board members to open and read their board packet prior to the meeting (which every member should do), the packet must be well-organized, easy to read, and without superfluous materials.

Board members should not feel like they must wade through mountains of paper just to prepare for the meeting. If you have board members who like to read at a deeper level, offer to send them additional materials under separate cover.

The board packet should contain the meeting place, time and date; the meeting agenda; the executive director’s report; high-level financial reports; pertinent committee reports; and any other background materials essential to preparation for the meeting.

Each board member should carefully review the packet prior to the meeting and come prepared to ask questions and discuss important issues. If a board member has a more in-depth question, s/he should contact the board chair or executive director before the meeting so as not to derail the agenda during the meeting.

A good board chair is like an orchestra conductor.

Another key component to an engaging board meeting is the board chair. The boardroom is full of talented, intelligent people with attributes and wisdom to benefit the organization.

The board chair must know how to use each person at their point of strength. At the same time, the chair must require that everyone adheres strictly to the agenda — much like a good conductor ensures all musicians are playing from the same song sheet.

The chair facilitates and sets the tone for the meeting but does not vote on motions unless her vote would break a tie. S/he keeps the board focused on the organization’s mission, vision, and strategic direction.

An effective board chair does not allow board members to derail the agenda with inappropriate questions. S/he calmly and firmly keeps discussion focused on the agenda. The chair may consider making a “parking lot” to post topics for future meetings.

The chair is also familiar with the basic Robert’s Rules of Order and follows them consistently. This practice sets an example for other board members, future chairs, and establishes a sound framework for consistently well-run meetings. Board members need to know that the chair is knowledgeable and can be trusted to keep everyone on task.

The meeting agenda provides a clear roadmap for discussion.

Susan Howlett, author of Boards on Fire!, suggests beginning every board meeting with a bit of food — just something to nibble on. This helps set a friendly tone and makes board members feel nurtured and valued.

Next, it’s time to remind board members why they are there and help them re-engage with the mission. A staff or board member or a client can tell a quick story that illustrates the mission.

The formal agenda begins with the Call to Order, then Welcome and Introductions, and next Approval of the Agenda. Approval of the previous meeting’s minutes as well as any routine reports can be handled with the Consent Agenda. Committee reports not included in the consent agenda can be given by the chair of the committee.

Next, it’s a good practice to take 5 to 10 minutes for a training. This can focus on an aspect of board responsibility or on some organizational background that will help with the meeting’s discussion. Even if someone has been a board member for a long time, the world is not static and there is always something new to learn.

Before you address old or new business, it’s time for the heart of the meeting. A strategic discussion about a deep, meaty issue that can provide significant direction to the organization. Keep this discussion to 30 minutes and focus on a few carefully selected generative questions.

Or, ask the executive director to describe something that keeps her up at night. This type of conversation requires board members to really think and contribute to a rich discussion. It will also keep them coming back for more. It will make them say your board meetings are brilliant.

Finally, be sure to adjourn in 90 minutes or less—consistently.

— Dr. Cynder Sinclair is a consultant to nonprofits and founder and CEO of Nonprofit Kinect. She has been successfully leading nonprofits for 30 years and holds a doctorate in organizational management. To read her blog, click here. To read her previous articles, click here. She can be contacted at 805.689.2137 or .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). The opinions expressed are her own.

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