Sunday, April 3, 2011

Finding time for board learning

“But where will we find the time for board development?”

It’s a common question that many boards ask when encouraged to invest in their own learning. Board development is a legitimate, even critical, need. Boards build their capacity to serve and to fulfill their responsibilities effectively when they commit to expanding their understanding of the organization, its mission area, and nonprofit governance.

When most boards hear “board development,” full-day retreats and multi-hour training sessions often come to mind. For busy people volunteering precious time, adding to the burden – however important to effective service – can feel impossible. It’s not impossible at all. In fact, the average board agenda is filled with (potential) space for learning.

As I discovered in my dissertation research, learning exists everywhere in routine board work. We just don’t recognize it as learning. Capacity for this sustaining work increases even more when we take a critical look at our board agendas and make some healthy changes. Following are several recommendations for clearing that space – and for making board meetings more inspiring, productive and enjoyable in the process.

Flip the agenda. I recently was part of a discussion where a local board raised a common concern: being so fatigued by the routine stuff that dominates most meeting agendas that there is little time or energy to deal with the more important conversations that tend to clump at the end. Placing the routine up front is common practice, but we can do things differently (especially when “tradition” is counterproductive). Open with the critical topics.

Adopt a consent agenda. Clear board meetings of  those time-consuming routine tasks - e.g., approval of minutes and committee reports - by placing them in a consent agenda that can be approved with one vote. Boards can quickly handle tasks that often overwhelm meetings, leaving time for higher priority discussions. This does require that committees create written summaries for inclusion in board packets. They should be doing so, anyway. We need that institutional history, especially with transient boards and staff.

Include a written executive director's report in the consent agenda. Much of what is shared in the ED’s report is routine detail that does not require discussion. Those substantive topics that require board feedback should be placed in appropriate sections elsewhere in the agenda.

Clear the agenda of the inevitable non-governance tasks. Erring on the side of oversharing is understandable. Board members don’t want to be left in the dark. But the board’s time is wasted when we bury members in management details. They’ll be less likely to micromanage when we don’t invite them to do so, too.

Include a mission moment in every meeting. The mission moment is a brief  (5-10 minutes) opportunity to hear about some aspect of the mission and, hopefully, how the organization is advancing it. Candidates for a mission moment could include a program update, a challenge overcome, or a story about a client served (or a composite, where confidentiality is a potential concern). It also could cover one of the broader issues to which the agency is tied (e.g., homelessness, environmental degradation, child abuse).

Assign a reading related to mission and/or programs. Include time to discuss it within the meeting. Give board members the opportunity to share what they learned, asked questions, and otherwise expand the group's knowledge.

Pose a Big Question, related to governance responsibilities, in every meeting. Include that question on the agenda, asking them to come prepared to discuss.

Assemble board packets strategically. Don't overwhelm them with a mountain of paper and reports. Make sure everything included enhances members' understanding and capacity to govern effectively, including educational materials and background readings that help them understand the issues more fully and make more effective decisions.

Share resources throughout the month. If you find an interesting article that would be informative, share the link electronically. Doing so not only evens the reading/learning burden over time, it provides consistent opportunity to think about your organization and its mission.

Create a private, online resource, e.g., a wiki, for storing information (e.g., key documents like by-laws, minutes, treasurer’s reports) that board members need. This environment also can be used to share links to resources that expand their understanding of their responsibilities and your mission. Having those resources available on demand increases the board's knowledge base (and their potential to make wise, appropriate decisions). I saw the potential for such a portal when a friend invited me into a space she created for her board.

Obviously, the goal isn't to incorporate all of these ideas into every board meeting. Rather, I wanted to offer some tips for both creating space within your board's existing time frame and for using that found space to govern more creatively and effectively.


Amy Eisenstein said...

Great suggestions for so many organizations that have boring board meetings! I especially love the idea of flipping the agenda. The only thing I would add is to include a client success story to each meeting as a reminder to all why they are there.

Debra said...

Thanks, Amy! Flipping the agenda to focus on high priority topics first feels like such an obvious response to the fatigue issue that this board (and others) expressed. But we're such creatures of habit that I imagine doing so would not come without some challenge. Still, the potential benefits are obvious.

The stifling, boring, unnecessary stuff that fills too many board meetings certainly doesn't help to keep members focused and motivated. We *want* to dig into the real issues. We want to use our brains to move the organization closer to fulfilling its mission.

Anne W. Ackerson said...

Hi, Debra --

I just spent half a day with a board where we talked about development and management of the meeting agenda. The consent agenda was a new concept for many. I also suggested that the goals of the group's strategic plan be used to organize discussion and decision-making. I've found that this can help a board and staff stay focused on the overarching ideas of their plan. Likewise, I like to put the vision/mission statement(s) at the top of every board meeting agenda -- again, it can be a useful tool for focusing or refocusing discussion.

Debra said...

I know I shouldn't be surprised when a board hasn't heard of a consent agenda, Anne, but that's still occasionally the case. It feels symptomatic of a larger challenge that frustrates: the gap between knowledge about governance and the boards that actually might benefit from it.

Your recommendation re: placing the vision and mission at the top of every agenda is so simple, but so potentially powerful. It keeps them exactly where they need to be: front and center in our minds as we conduct board work.

And I *love* your recommendation for incorporating goals from the strategic plan into board meeting discussions. Again, that should be a no brainer. But in practice, that's often the kind of deliberation that gets set aside for a retreat (or, worse, the next strategic planning session). So powerful. Thank you for sharing!