January 28, 2022

What are Board Meetings For?

I have led board meetings as a chair. I have participated in board meetings as a member. And I have observed board meetings as a consultant. And it is, as they say, a mixed bag of nuts.

Nonprofit boards, often at the urging of consultants, will address board development through structure: Is our board the right size? Are we meeting too often or not often enough? Do we have the right committees? Should we use a consent agenda? Having the appropriate structure does create the conditions for effective governance. However, just like comfortable chairs and fresh popcorn do not guarantee a good movie, a board structure is only as effective as what takes place within it.

What, exactly, is the purpose of a board meeting?

To begin, it is important to recognize what board meetings are not. First, the board meeting is not a venue for regular CEO performance reviews. Detailed CEO reports and program updates makes it easy to slide into an accountability mindset. However, it is important to remember that the primary responsibility of a nonprofit board is to provide high level oversight to ensure that the organization is meeting its mission in a manner that is legal, ethical, and sustainable.

Second, board meetings are not show-and-tell sessions. While it is important to provide opportunities for board members to learn more about the organization’s programs, I am talking about something different. Consider this: a nonprofit CEO once told me that he brings staff members to board meetings so that the board knows that they are good at their jobs and are staying busy. If this is a concern of the board, there are ways to address it in a more direct way, namely by holding the CEO accountable for the results of staff activity.

Simply put, a board meeting is the board’s meeting, the sole purpose of which is to conduct board-level business (which is, as you recall, “high level oversight to ensure that the organization is meeting its mission in a manner that is legal, ethical, and sustainable”). I offer a few quick tips for making better use of board meeting time.

  • Divide the agenda into three sections: routine reports, such as finance and the CEO report; critical issues, which require immediate attention or action; and strategic issues, which are intermediate to long-term and impact the strategic aspirations, goals, or priorities of the organization.
  • Classify each agenda item as either an information item, a discussion item, or an action item. This will lessen the tendency for conversation to wander until people run out of things to say or lose patience.
  • Structure the CEO report to be an executive summary of key issues, activities, and developments, augmented with the CEO’s perspective on the overall standing of the organization.

I hope you enjoy the show.

Need Additional Assistance?

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