Let’s add nonprofit board meetings to the list. Mark them up alongside classical music, dark chocolate, mindfulness, camping and other people’s children. Things everyone’s supposed to like, but nobody actually does.
But maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that board meetings are just so hard to love. After all, they are still meetings. Given that the average person spends 13 days a year in pointless meetings, any gathering with the word “meetings” attached is likely to result in a collective groan — internally, if not externally.
Nonprofit board meetings represent a very particular balancing act. If not all of them, most participants are likely to be volunteers drawn to the non-profit by passion or purpose. Their motivation and enthusiasm are unquestionable. But there’s still the small problem of that word “meeting.” By avoiding some of the significant mistakes that nonprofits, like organizations of all stripes, tend to make with their board meetings, you can make sure your board meetings remain effective, efficient and, gasp, maybe even enjoyable.
1: Holding board meetings too regularly
Each country and maybe even regions within countries may have different regulations about how often board meetings need to be held, with annual board meetings usually the legal minimum. If your nonprofit is very small, a yearly gathering of the board might do the job. However, as non-profits grow, they’ll likely need to be held more often than that.
Quarterly can strike a satisfactory compromise between too often and not often enough, but it’s better to call a board meeting as and when needed than to schedule one each month and then have to scrape around for topics to fill it. Where meetings are concerned, absence can indeed make the heart grow fonder.
2: Forgetting to plan ahead
Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth president of the United States and meeting organizer extraordinaire, once said: “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” It’s a great reminder that much of the hard work is often done before the event itself. Such attention to detail will impress your board, too, as less than two-thirds of meetings are considered to be well run.
- The meeting organizer should ensure that all those required to attend receive an invite at least one week, if not two weeks, before the meeting. It can be incredibly challenging to juggle the agendas of a diverse cluster of people. Turn to an online scheduling tool to help facilitate board meetings. A poll with potential days and times can be circulated, allowing all board members to indicate which options are most convenient for them. The tool will then display the best slot for most people to attend, saving hours on behalf of the time-starved organizer.
- Whoever is facilitating your board meeting, usually the board’s chair should prep and distribute an agenda for the meeting at least a few days before it occurs.
- If your meeting is virtual — an increasingly common occurrence and a good option for non-profits, saving the expense and inconvenience of finding a location — check all required technologies work before the meeting and that everyone has a link to the meeting. If you schedule using Doodle, we take care of that for you as a Zoom link can be automatically shared with every appointment.
3: Taking it all too seriously
Even just the term “board meeting” conjures up images of double-breasted suits, reading glasses and stern faces. It doesn’t have to be like that. Being on the board at a nonprofit is likely a passion project for almost all involved, so passion must remain.
Why not open the meeting with a recent success story to lighten the mood and also remind all participants of your nonprofit’s mission, which highlights precisely why they got involved in the first place?
4: Dropping surprises into your board meetings
A board meeting is a time for enthusiasm, success, conviction and even creativity. It is not ever the time for surprises. Decided to change the name of your nonprofit? Fired the head of media? Your CEO has quit to open a poncho store in Eastern Antioquia? Make sure everyone is equipped with all this information before the meeting — never use the board meeting as an opportunity to update everyone on the latest organization news and gossip.
Equally, any relevant pre-reads, such as sector reports, recent press coverage, internal studies and results should be shared well before the meeting. There’s nothing more frustrating than meetings that have to go on pause for ten minutes while everyone skims through vital documents.
5: Not sticking to the timing
Alfred Hitchcock famously instructed theatre managers to close the doors once his film Psycho started, as he felt walking in even a few minutes late would ruin the audience members’ enjoyment and appreciation of his masterpiece. The Master of Suspense would have made an excellent chair of the board.
According to our own research, almost half of people count participants showing up late or leaving early amongst their top meeting annoyances. Agreeing on clear rules of engagement from your very first meeting — everyone arrives and leaves on time, no phones or laptops — will serve you well down the line.
The chair, or whoever is facilitating the meeting, also needs to be skilled in keeping the discussion moving forward and on schedule. One canny tactic is to have a whiteboard (real or virtual) of subjects that arise and should be discussed but are not pertinent to the plan. Doing that means these points don’t get forgotten to be picked up by other groups or in a subsequent board meeting, but they also don’t derail the current session.
6: Allowing long committee reports
One of the major causes of board meetings running long is an agenda that encourages long oral reports from committees. If your nonprofit is small, you might only have updates from your executive, fundraising and finance committees. However, as non-profits grow, they’re likely to add committees dedicated to programs, audits, personnel, public policy, special events and strategic planning. If each of those starts extending to even 20 minutes, then you might need to ask board members to bring provisions and a sleeping bag.
Avoid significant updates in the board meeting itself. Committee heads should share a few simple bullet points of the must-know information rather than a blow-by-blow account of the past few months. Board members then have the time to ask questions or make comments before moving on to the next committee update. If you want to keep your board meetings especially crisp, share these short updates on the agenda before the meeting.
7: Forgetting that board members are assets, not overseers
Many executives dislike board meetings because they feel like they’re being called before the school principal. All too often, their attitude is that they have to explain and justify themselves and their organization to a room of supervisors who are eager to dissect and criticize every action.
However, that perspective ignores the most significant advantage that boards bring to any non-profit: they are usually filled with smart, experienced and well-connected people who can help your non-profit succeed. When the mindset shifts to seeing the board as higher-level problem-solvers rather than Victorian pit bosses, the board meeting becomes a much more enjoyable, productive and collaborative event.
8: Not focusing on excellent minutes
Taking minutes in a board meeting is an art form. Minutes must capture all the to-dos, summarize agreements, record quorums, and accurately surmise the next steps while remaining precise and jettisoning anything superfluous. They should also be distributed as promptly as possible after board meetings, with action points highlighted and clear for all to understand.
Remember that minutes represent legal documents for non-profits. Should your organization ever be drawn into a lawsuit or similar situation, then the minutes from board meetings are crucial artifacts in understanding how decisions were made, what order they were made and where liability may lie.
Given the importance of minutes, the role of taking them should be assigned to someone who understands their importance and utility and who, during the meeting, is tasked uniquely with minuting events.
9: Being unaware of legal requirements
Each country and even regions within countries will have a series of legal requirements with which non-profits must comply and execute. These might range from which documents they must disclose publicly to how marketing practices are conducted. However, several legal requirements are likely to touch on board meetings. The most common are:
- How often nonprofits must hold board meetings. The usual minimum is once per year, but don’t take our word for it, as this figure can differ per region.
- The minimum number of board members who must be present to reach a quorum — that is, to vote on any big decisions.
- Minutes should be accurate, stored clearly and made accessible, as they provide a vital legal record of how decisions were made. The period for which minutes should be kept may change region by region.
10: Failing to follow up
Just as the preparation is vital for a successful board meeting, so too is the follow-up. The only strictly essential postscript required is the timely distribution of the meeting minutes.
However, it pays dividends to go beyond the bare necessities:
- Send a sincere message of thanks to the board members who volunteer their time and energies into being a part of the organization. A small gift once a year is also thoughtful as a token of appreciation.
- Highlight upcoming events and programs that board members might want to be a part of or that they might like to share within their networks.
- Send out a short survey to get participants’ opinions on how the meeting went, whether it achieved the goals set out and how it might be improved in the future. Self-assessment is a vital tool in helping to plan better and more productive meetings.
So there you have our top ten mistakes to avoid when organizing your nonprofit board meetings. There are plenty of other tips and checklists out there that can help guide you through the process of planning and running board meetings. However, bear in mind that your board meeting should be as individual as your organization, while certain boxes do need to be checked.
Avoid these mistakes, focus on keeping participants engaged and making smart decisions, and you can’t go too far wrong.
To learn how another nonprofit, Strategic Resource Group, uses Doodle to optimize its nonprofit meetings, check out our case study.