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October 22, 2020
Got Board Problems?
By Andy Robinson

Andy Robinson
Andy Robinson
No one can deny that boards are often great repositories of wisdom, expertise, and fellowship. That’s assuming, of course, that people show up for meetings and follow through afterward.

If spotty attendance and poor follow-through are hampering your organization, here are suggestions on fixing the problems.

Beyond the usual complications of family, work, and other commitments—in other words, not enough time—the primary reason people fail to show up at meetings is that the meetings aren’t productive. Nothing of consequence happens. As a result, absentees don’t feel they’re missing anything important.

The best solution is to create interesting, challenging agendas that focus on decision-making. “Approve minutes of last meeting” does not qualify as a decision, nor does a discussion about which color to paint the office, nor does an argument about the wording of the spring appeal letter.

In addition to a focused agenda, other ways to improve your turnout include the following:
  • Hold fewer meetings. If you gather monthly, try 10 meetings per year. Make each one count a little more.
  • Schedule many months in advance. If you meet on a regular date—for example, the second Monday of the month—ask trustees to confirm the dates and put them in their calendars at least six months in advance.
  • Distribute the agenda beforehand. At least one week before the meeting, email or mail the agenda with a reminder about the date, time, and location. Hint: controversial agenda items always boost turnout.
  • Feed people. It’s one of the oldest ways to express appreciation. If cost is a concern, rotate this task among the board members and ask them to take turns covering the expense.
  • Include a “mission moment.” Author and consultant Kay Sprinkel Grace advises that every time you gather, include a personal testimonial from a client, or a videotaped excerpt from your recent performance, or a brief slide show about the land your organization just preserved #147; something tangible to re-connect trustees with the mission and remind them why they serve.
  • Rotate responsibility for chairing or facilitating the meeting. If necessary, provide training and support. When participants know their turn is coming, they'll show up to watch how others manage the process and learn from their peers.
Yes, our nonprofits probably hold too many meetings. And yes, we could probably dispense with half of them. In the end, it’s not about the quantity, but rather the quality. If you make them lively, substantive, and challenging, and you create opportunities for everyone to participate in a meaningful way, people will show up.

Poor Follow-Through on Commitments

I hear a lot of complaints about boards, but perhaps the most common one centers around promises not kept. “I’ll take care of it,” says the well-meaning trustee #147; and then life gets in the way. The task slides further and further down the to-do list. Eventually it falls off the list altogether.

As a well-intentioned board member prone to over-commitment, I have empathy for people on both sides of this problem. As I write this, I'm thinking about the board work I’ve been avoiding this week. (No surprise #147; it has to do with fundraising.) But as someone who frequently relies on the work of others, I can also feel frustrated and angry when they don’t honor their agreements.
First and foremost, we must respect the fact that we trustees serve as volunteers and calibrate our expectations accordingly. We can’t require people to devote the same amount of time or energy or love as they give to their families, their livelihoods, their health and well-being.

Here are a few thoughts to keep you and your fellow volunteers firmly on task:
  • Negotiate clear guidelines for how much time you expect from each other. This begins with recruitment, but should be revisited at least once a year with the full board.
  • Develop and use a board job description. Make sure you have a written agreement that outlines mutual expectations. When you sit down to talk about time, take a look at this document to ensure that it remains accurate and relevant.
  • Clarify and test all assumptions by saying them out loud. Often, one person may hear the word “commitment” while the other is really saying, “I’ll try to complete this task, but it’s a low priority right now.” Paraphrase what you’ve heard to make sure you understand it correctly.
  • Build “time off” into the board calendar. This can be done collectively: “Since we tend to get less work done in August, let’s agree not to make any commitments that month.” As an alternative, free time could be allocated on a rotating basis: “Anna’s daughter is visiting for two weeks in April, so she’s requested no extra board work that month. Who’s got a busy stretch coming and wants to claim May as time off?”
  • Be sure everyone leaves each meeting with a specific task to complete before the next meeting #147; and then ask them to report on their work when you reconvene. Trustees who avoid or resist this approach will eventually leave your board, making room for new talent, passion, and dedication.

One last suggestion for curing your attendance and follow-through ills: have a good time. The most effective boards make a point of having fun together #147; celebrating victories, honoring little accomplishments, laughing about the ironies of the work.

Given the inordinate number of details and the slow pace of change, it’s easy to burn out. Our work is made possible—and I hope enjoyable—through our common purpose, generosity of spirit, and our ability to smile in the face of adversity and inertia.

Andy Robinson is the author of Great Boards for Small Groups, from which this article was excerpted, published by Emerson & Church. For more information, visit or call 508-359-0019.
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