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October 22, 2020
Design Board Meetings to Make Them Fully Effective for Everyone
By Susan Nicholl

Susan Nicholl
Susan Nicholl
By creating a board meeting agenda that actively engages each person, board chairs will transform the meetings into opportunities for board members to reignite their passion for the organization and their energy for governance work.

Don’t assume that an unengaged board is necessarily an apathetic board. More likely, its members are eager for ways to actively engage in the board meetings proceedings. Design opportunities for engagement like these. The following should help.

The meeting’s agenda should stimulate the broadest participation possible
  • The chair designs meeting agenda in consultation with the executive director.
  • The purpose of board meetings is to take action, make decisions, collect input and perspectives #147; not to passively hear updates and reports.
  • Resist the temptation to put all the easy items first on the agenda; the board will be too weary to tackle the tricky subjects at the end.
  • Have the Executive Committee handle some items in a separate meeting or phone call before the board meeting.
Keep board members engaged during meetings
  • You can tell if a board has members that are too strong because they dominate the discussion, leaving others behind. Address this by asking each committee chair to own a section of the agenda. The committee chair should not just report but should identify a question or issue that requires board members’ feedback or action.
  • Steer the discussion away from minutia. Kick details to a committee, or, if the topic has to do with management or operations, kick it to the staff, where it rightfully belongs.
A successful board meeting depends on advance communication
  • The chair, clerk or executive director should send a backgrounder document a week before the board meeting. This should contain the committee reports and other updates and that would otherwise be given as verbal reports at the meeting.
    • Indicate which topics will be discussed at the board meeting and require action.
    • Indicate which topics are informational and won’t be discussed at the board meeting. Board members give their tacit consent to these items if they do not raise objections.
  • Don’t read the backgrounder report aloud at the board meeting. In fact, a good portion of the subjects in the document shouldn’t even be brought up at the meeting because they’re already old news! (Retreading old ground is an energy-sapper and patience-snapper.)
Connect with your mission and impact at board meetings
  • Spend 15 minutes at the beginning of each board meeting connecting the board with the mission. For example, invite a client to tell the board how the organization personally affected them.
  • At each board meeting, have the members do a Grounded Visioning exercise by spending 10 minutes telling the others what attracted them to the organization and what keeps them here. Ask members to share a high point story of a time that made them most proud, committed, or engaged with this organization.
  • Give a shout-out to accomplishments. What is the greatest single greatest feat made by your board in the last 12 months? Take time at a meeting to savor and celebrate.
Keep the momentum!
  • Follow up board meetings by:
    • Sending a quick meeting summary immediately listing the action items that will be undertaken before the next board meeting. Don’t wait to recap these action items in the minutes that appear later. By then, people will already have missed the deadlines for their action items.
    • List tasks, the person responsible, at the deadline.
  • If you can’t send the summary of action items right after the meeting, the chair or clerk could at least send a quick email outlining the decisions made and any action items that members took on.
Deal with the “problem” board member
  • Identify the real problem: A “problem” board member is not necessarily a person who challenges the status quo; the real problem board member is a person whose actions or manner push other board members (and staff) away from the organization.
  • Identify the people responsible for fixing it: Board members too often rely on the board chair. Instead, make the conversation between the problem board member and at least two other board members #147; preferably officers and/or governance chair.
  • The CEO should not have to confront the problem board member or figure out how to fix the problem, as the board needs to manage itself.
Once board members begin to feel more engaged during the meetings, they will most likely become more connected to the organization through committee or other governance work.

Susan Nicholl is executive director of the MetroWest Tourism & Visitors Bureau and was formerly technical assistance consultant at the Institute for Nonprofit Development. Email her at or call 508-864-2724.

July 2012
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