This post is part of the occasional "10 ways" series - quick, practical responses to common questions about nonprofit boards and the work that they do.
Ah, yes. The nonprofit board meeting. Where great ideas - and member enthusiasm - go to die.
Boiling down one of the foundational themes of this blog into 10 key ideas feels like the biggest challenge so far. It's also a healthy one for yours truly. If I were to force myself to make those choices, these ideas would top the list:
1. Start with an agenda focused on governing for vision and mission. Can you connect every activity, every discussion, to your governance responsibilities to advance the vision and mission of your organization? Skip anything that doesn't keep you focused on your organizational purpose and your specific leadership roles as its governing body. Boards shouldn't wallow in minutiae, nor should they micromanage. They govern.
2. Dump the endless oral reports. If I could name just one simple step to improve board meetings, this might be the one. Replace those verbal reports with written updates that contribute to the board's knowledge and history and open up meetings for more meaningful work. It instantly creates time to discuss, learn, evaluate and govern
3. Value (and facilitate) open space and big questions. Where is board time best spent if we aren't listening to reports and we're focused on governance? By regularly setting aside time in meetings to ask big, open, future-oriented questions. What does our community's future look like in our mission area? What trends are emerging that might affect demand for our programs and our capacity to provide those services? Where are the great ideas, from our field and elsewhere, that can help us think creatively and expansively about what lies ahead? What do we need, as a board, to lead into that future? Here's the hard part for action-oriented community leaders: Recognize that it's okay to give yourselves time to think and reflect over time, to not rush to a vote, on decisions shaping the organization's future.
4. Flip the agenda. For some boards, abandoning reports and throwing open the creative doors to the future simply asks too much. In those cases, I offer a worthy Plan B: flip the agenda. This addresses the common complaint that members are so wiped out listening to reports and dealing with the usual suspects that dominate most early agendas that they are exhausted (and time-pressed) by the time they get to the more substantive topics that typically fall under old and new business. Listening to reports takes little brain power. If you absolutely must include oral reports (No, really. Rethink that. Please), place them at the end and reserve prime time for what matters.
5. Create the expectation (and opportunities) that every member will contribute (and maybe even lead). No one should leave a board meeting without having contributed actively to the conversation. Yes, some of us process information in quieter ways. But everyone should be able to contribute to board discussions and deliberations. Make sure everyone has a chance to address topics before the board, and to share fully. Expect that they do so.
6. Encourage storytelling. Sharing stories facilitates learning in ways that simply citing information and statistics cannot accomplish. They connect us more closely and personally to the mission. They offer us examples of how board, staff, and volunteers engaged to make a difference. They give us a chance to make sense of our own experiences and learn to share appropriately with donors and other stakeholders. Stories can create powerful opportunities to explore and understand our organizational role and impact in our community.
7. Make time for learning. Learning takes place in various forms during board meetings. It builds group capacity to serve. Why not commit to building in opportunities to learn and explore as part of regular board work? Ask individual members to share expertise that expands the group's knowledge or skills needed to govern effectively. Share an article, video or other resource ahead of the meeting and carve out 10-15 minutes to discuss how it applies to your mission area or an issue you're facing as a board. Ask a member committee to research a governance topic and share what is learned with the larger group. Take advantage of the fact most of what we learn as adults does not take place in a formal setting.
8. Include updates on organizational and board plans. Strategic processes most often fail when they are confined to periodic exercises that result in a document that ends up gathering dust until an update is needed. Help to ensure that strategic efforts (e.g., planning and goal-setting) have a chance to be useful: include time across the board year for updates. What's working well? What might have been more of a stretch than anticipated? What obstacles have arisen that were not anticipated? Regular check-ins allow nonprofit leaders to adjust and adapt appropriately to an ever-changing environment.
9. Acknowledge the big and little successes. The routine processes of governance are far from glamorous; the work can be tedious and occasionally hard. Keeping the eye on a vision and mission that likely won't be reached in our lifetimes - certainly not during our board terms - can test even the most passionate member's motivation. Take a moment to stop, as a group, and recognize member contributions to forward mission motion. Acknowledge a job well done, creativity displayed, outreach that engaged new stakeholders. Help the board and its members to appreciate those actions and efforts that make a difference, and reconnect them to their reason for serving.
10. Close every meeting with this important question: How did we advance our vision and mission today? Bring closure to your productive time together, and remind members why they are gathered, by articulating how the work you did in this setting moved you - and your organization - just a little bit closer to what draws you together. Even if the steps are microscopic, you should be identify ways in which your time moved you forward.