Sunday, September 5, 2010

The art, science of great board meetings

What makes a nonprofit board meeting the ideal environment for not only effective governance but creative approaches governance? What does a board meeting that feeds a director's motivations to serve look and feel like?

Twitter friend and governance blogger Alice Korngold offers one of the most thought-provoking framings that I've ever read in her recent book, Leveraging Good Will: Strengthening Nonprofits by Engaging Businesses. My bookmarks are filled with Alice's work - she challenges and informs me with virtually everything she writes about governance and board leadership. Her book is no exception, but this passage in particular resonated:
Board meetings provide the occasion to focus the board's attention on the matters of utmost concern and to call the board to action accordingly...Board members should leave each meeting with a renewed appreciation of the mission, an increased understanding of the challenges and opportunities facing the organization, a chance to have contributed to a discussion of importance, and the inspiration and direction to help the organization. There is an art and a science to creating relevant and useful board meetings.
My first reaction to that description, even as I read it again tonight, is "Yes!" That is exactly the foundation for creating meaningful, focused, leader-ful settings for the kinds of engaged governance that nonprofit organizations need. My second reaction is "Darn." How rare and wonderful is the existence of such an environment for most boards?

I encourage you to do two things. One is to order and read Alice's fabulous book. It's one of the better overviews of a board members' governance responsibilities that I've read in a long time. Second, take this paragraph to your board and ask members questions such as these:
  • How do our meetings reflect the kind of focus described here?
  • Where is there room for sharpening our focus?
  • What keeps us from "attention on the matters of utmost concern?"
  • What do our members need from the board experience to leave each meeting feeling motivated, informed, and feeling certain that they have "contributed to a discussion of importance?"
If you are a board chairperson, how will you ensure that the agendas you set and the meetings you lead will focus on what is of utmost importance for your agency? How will you generate an environment that feeds individual members' understanding of their responsibilities and the sense that they are moving you ever closer to mission fulfillment?

If you serve on a board, how will you challenge your leaders to create opportunities within each meeting to govern with your organization's vision and mission at the center? How will you step up, and speak out, when things wander? How will you keep the mission and vision at the forefront of your own contributions to "discussions of importance?"

Whether or not a board thrives in the kind of rich environment that Alice describes here, or wallows in minutiae, falls squarely on the shoulders of the board itself. How can we work to ensure that every board meeting comes as close as possible? What ultimately contributes to board members leaving meetings fulfilled and energized instead of depleted?

Please share your experiences and insights about how boards go about making Alice's vision their meeting norm.


Jessica Journey said...

Great post, Debra. I absolutely agree that board meetings are a critical opportunity for engagement - one that we often do not take full advantage of!

In a recent blog post, I provided two different activities that can be helpful in executive meetings. I hope that they prove to be effective for you and others!

Keep up the great work! Jessica

Debra said...

Loved the ideas shared in your post, Jessica! I've bookmarked it and will be sharing widely with others.

Readers, if you haven't checked out the link that Jessica shared in her comment, I'd encourage you to do so.

Tony said...

A very useful set of questions. As chair of a Board's leadership committee, I often conduct "exit interviews" of Board members being term-limited off or stepping aside. I plan on incorporating these into that conversation, as well as into my initial conversation with potential and oncoming Board members.

Debra Beck, EdD said...

I'm glad for the feedback, Tony, and glad to hear the questions suggested might be of use to you and your board.

Taking the time to reflect is critical in governance, but so easy to set aside in the press to get the urgent things done. It takes board leaders (like you!) committing to making time for these kinds of questions, in service to mission, for governance to reach its full potential.