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October 25, 2020
Ten Steps to More Effective Board Meetings
By Eric Phelps

Eric Phelps
Eric Phelps
Nonprofit board members commonly complain that board meetings often are boring and unproductive, but implementing a few practices can strengthen their effectiveness while energizing them and their organization.

One survey indicates that professionals spend an average of 61 hours per month in meetings #147; and they consider 50% of these sessions to have been fruitless. Surely, we can do better, and can raise the bar from “having a quorum” to having awesome and productive meetings.

In their book Switch, Chip & Dan Heath make three important distinctions that are worth considering in relation to meetings:
  • What looks like a people problem is often a situation problem.
  • What looks like resistance is often confusion.
  • What looks like laziness is often exhaustion.
Many meetings, unwittingly, are set up to be unproductive:
  • We often meet too often.
  • We meet in drab spaces.
  • We meet at the end of the day (most common time is 7 #147; 9 p.m.).
  • We send members material to review last minute. (“Please read this 15-page report and be prepared to discuss tomorrow.”)
  • We give vague directions. (“We could use your help with fundraising!”)
  • We forget to thank them.
With that in mind, here are simple practices that can improve board meetings:
  1. Start the Meeting Before the Meeting #147; When planning a meeting, first ask, “Why are we meeting?” and “Who should participate?” (If the answer is something akin to “Well, the Development Committee meets every third Thursday,” please dig deeper for a rationale).
  2. Help People Be Prepared #147; Send the agenda, action items, and reports a minimum of five days in advance of the meeting. Include a summary of important items that everyone should be prepared to discuss.
  3. Consider Using a Consent Agenda #147; The last thing anyone wants to do at a meeting is hear the report read aloud. (Boooring and insulting!) A Consent Agenda combines routine items (minutes, executive director report, program reports) into one vote. This one change can save a lot of time and allow for more strategic conversations. (See more info on Consent Agenda.)
  4. Meet Less Often #147; Rule of thumb: Boards can be effective meeting four to six times annually. Doing so gives committees time to focus on a variety of matters for final review by the board. It also cuts down on meeting planning and preparation time for staff and leaders.
  5. Plan for Technology #147; If you are going to present something involving technology (PowerPoint, video conference, etc.), rehearse this in advance. Nothing annoys people faster than tech glitches.
  6. Be Abundantly Clear #147;Format report for ease of understanding. Use bullets, executive summaries, and charts. Increase comprehension of finances by using a bar graph. Emphasize trends and problems in BOLD type. Be specific about calls to action ("Please send contact information for five people for our spring fling by March 1."). At the end of each meeting, review the action items for clarity.
  7. Meet in Fun Places #147; Let’s be honest: meeting in the conference room when the school is closed is not inspiring. Consider meeting at your local library, where rooms are often available for free, a board member’s home, an office with a rooftop conference room, or a local restaurant with a private space. Be creative about space!
  8. Include a Mission Moment #147; A client success story, a personalized thank you note, video or news story can bring the mission—and inspiration—to your meeting. (Staff reports don’t count.)
  9. Use a Timer #147; Yes, it can seem obnoxious to have the equivalent of a kitchen timer going off for every agenda item, but:
    • It will keep the meeting on track.
    • It will reduce extraneous repetition and redundancy from board members. (Longer discussions actually lead to “analysis paralysis" and do not strengthen decision-making).
    • It will train everyone to stay on task and over time you may no longer need it.
  10. Celebrate and Thank #147; Use your board meetings as an opportunity to celebrate successes and milestones. Thank committee and individual contributions. (“I want to open by thanking the event committee for another spectacular fundraiser, especially Kia, who led the team.") Ice cream helps!
Eric Phelps, principal of Rainmaker Consulting, consults with nonprofits on organizational development, board development, fundraising strategy, and strategic planning. Email him at or call 413-575-0588.
November 2017
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