7 Tips for Running Effective Nonprofit Board Meetings

If fundraising is the lifeblood of your nonprofit then your board of directors is the heart that keeps the organization moving forward.

The problem is that despite their importance, many people view board of director meetings as a drab and high level mumbo jumbo. However, with some planning and foresight, you can make these meetings more lively and engaging.

During the last three years, I served as the Executive Director of a youth-focused leadership development nonprofit and was chair of the board of directors. We faced a number of challenges during that time and through productive board of director meetings, we achieved some great results. Here are seven lessons that can help make your board of director meetings more productive, exciting and worthwhile.

The Meeting Starts Before the Meeting

Fun fact: a board of directors meeting doesn’t actually start when everyone is sitting around a table and it is called to order. Your work actually starts long before then. Prior to the meeting, you need take care of the logistics to make the time run smoothly. It helps to collect and send out all of the regular reports including the financials, director reports and any other business filings that need to be reviewed prior to meeting. If you send it out to the directors early, they have time to take notes, prepare questions and become more familiar with the information.

It also helps to keep surprises to a minimum at board meetings (unless it is a birthday party). If you have any large proposals or controversial items, it’s beneficial to give board members a heads up before the meeting. You don’t want to catch anyone off guard. This can also help you argue the merits of the proposals prior to the meeting and it gives each of the directors time to carefully weigh the benefits of each item. Again, taking some of the thinking and digesting of ideas out of the board meeting will help them run more smoothly.

Agenda Setting

Each meeting has several regular business items that need to be covered, such as reviewing previous meeting minutes, reports and discussing new and old business—but how you set up the meeting can dictate its effectiveness. If you are scheduled to have a long, mentally draining discussion about a future program, following it up with an in-depth review of the next year’s budget might not lead to a productive use of your time. Keep the meeting snappy, mix in breaks and don’t let the conversations get too heavy. Keep the energy up! By thinking ahead and balancing the agenda, you can create a meeting that allows you to tackle several serious topics, but doesn’t drag. The other half of this comes in during the meeting. Once you set the agenda, stick to it to make sure you get everything done that you’ve planned.

Team Building

The board of directors that plays together stays together, right? Mostly, yes. You don’t have to play together, but you should care about the people you are working with and the board members should have an investment in what you’re doing. You should encourage sharing of personal stories and successes (during appropriate times) between board members so they get to know each other. You can also spend time at meetings doing team building activities, but make sure these aren’t forced or make anyone feel uncomfortable. The goal is the build a team and not to find new players for your rec league basketball team.

Keep Detailed Minutes

While the meeting is going on, it is important to keep track of what is happening. It can be easy to get caught up in the discussion and focus on the direction of the conversation. You should also make sure that someone is taking notes on the meeting, whether it is you, the board’s secretary or someone else. The minutes should include a summary of points being made, actions steps, motions and other official actions. Taking detailed, thorough minutes during the meeting can help eliminate headaches later.

Listen and Ask for Opinions

Every member of your board is important. You can make them feel more engaged by making sure everyone has the chance to contribute. Sometimes board members can be quiet because they’re overshadowed by other members, but other times they are thinking the matter over in their heads and still formulating their thoughts. It’s one thing to ask them to talk, but you should also listen to what they are saying and fit it into the context of the meeting. Allow everyone the opportunity to speak and make sure the entire board has their attention.

Recognize and Thank

The members of your board of directors aren’t robots, unless you are reading this in the year 2102 and humans have been overtaken by our computer overlords. But for now, they are people and they should be recognized for their contributions both to your organization and in their everyday life. While this might not be tied directly to meetings, making sure that your directors know that you appreciate their work can help you have more effective meetings. If they feel appreciated, they will likely be more engaged and want to participate—you don’t have to spend money to do so either. While you can provide them with dinner or gifts, a thank-you note or a special gift that is unique to your nonprofit can also be just as effective.

Review Action Items

This is simple and straightforward, but you should review action steps for the next meeting twice, if not three times. First, at the end of each meeting review the tasks assigned to board members and the timeline for each item. Then after the meeting, send an email out the board members with another reminder of the action items. When you send out the notice of the next upcoming meeting, you can also send out another reminder of the action steps. Like we talked about in the first point, meetings don’t just happen when everyone is together. If your directors keep moving the work forward between the meetings it can help the actual meetings more productive.

As with anything, leading a meeting takes skill. It takes leadership, organization and clear expectations. If you follow these seven tips, you’ll be off to a good start to make you board of director meetings more efficient—but also make your own adjustments based on your specific board. Before you know it, your board will be pumping like a strong, healthy heart.

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