How to Hold Effective Nonprofit Board Meetings
Most nonprofit board work is done in meetings, either with the full board or in committees. The board president is responsible for ensuring that meetings are well organized and begin and end at a scheduled hour. Nothing damages board effectiveness more than poorly organized meetings that don’t stay on topic and that continue late into the night. Nonprofit board members are volunteers; they aren’t being paid by the hour.
If the organization has an executive director, the president may delegate some responsibilities for setting up meetings. Ultimately, however, part of the president’s job is to see that board members have the information they need to make good decisions and that they do so in a reasonable amount of time.
How to get members to show up
Saying how often a board of directors should meet is impossible. The only real answer is as often as it needs to. A meeting schedule depends on the organization’s needs and the amount of business conducted at board meetings. Some nonprofit boards meet only once a year, the legal minimum.
These tend to be small but stable organizations with one or two employees. Most nonprofit boards meet more frequently than once a year; some meet quarterly, some meet every other month, and others schedule monthly meetings. Of course, the board president may call a board meeting at any time if the board needs to handle special business.
The advantage of having more frequent board meetings is that board members are more engaged in the governance of the organization. The disadvantage — especially if the agenda doesn’t include much business — is that board members may be more tempted to skip meetings.
Some boards schedule meetings at the beginning of the year for the entire year. By entering these dates in their appointment calendars months in advance, board members are less likely to schedule other events on the same days and are more likely to attend the meetings.
For example, if you meet monthly, you may schedule your meetings for the second Tuesday of each month. If you aren’t this organized, always schedule the next meeting before the end of the present meeting. Doing so is much easier than trying to schedule a meeting by telephone or e-mail.
Some boards use a listserv, Google Groups, or other online resource to communicate between board meetings and to compile documents in an easily accessible place.
How to conduct efficient meetings
If you’re looking for some tips to ensure effective board meetings, check out the following ideas:
Schedule a meeting between the executive director and board president prior to the meeting. This can be done in person or via phone, but it’s an important step in determining the agenda and the focus for the upcoming meeting. The meeting also allows the executive director to update the president on staff issues, funding opportunities, and any areas where the board needs to offer additional guidance and support.
Ten days to two weeks before a board meeting, send an announcement of the meeting to all board members. Include the minutes from the last meeting and an agenda for the upcoming meeting. Also include any committee reports, financial statements, or background research that the board will discuss at the meeting.
If the meeting minutes include a list of tasks for board members to complete before the next meeting, try to send members a rough draft of the minutes as soon after the meeting as possible so they can get started.
Limit the length of meetings to two hours or less, if possible. After two hours, especially if you’re holding the meeting in the evening, attention begins to wane. If you must go longer than two hours, take a break. Offering refreshments is always a good idea.
Try to find a conference room for the meeting. Holding a discussion around a conference table is much easier than holding one in someone’s living room. The table offers a place to set papers, and people won’t argue over who gets the recliner. It also sets the stage and implies that work is to be done.
Avoid holding meetings in restaurants and cafes, if possible. The noise levels are too high to make good discussion possible, and all the activity is a constant distraction. You also have no privacy.
Stick to the agenda. Don’t allow people to wander off topic. Some agendas set the time allowed for discussion after each item. You don’t have to do this, but if your meetings have been veering off course, setting time limits may help control them.
Follow Robert’s Rules of Order. You don’t need to be overly formal in your meetings (many board meetings are very casual), but having a basic knowledge of when to make a motion and when to call the question is helpful. Having a copy of accepted parliamentary rules can come in handy.
Thank your board. Board members are volunteers who give time and money to your organization. Take every opportunity during meetings to make sure they’re appreciated. Mention their names when appropriate in newsletters and media releases. Small gifts are sometimes useful, but don’t be extravagant. You don’t want to be accused of wasting the organization’s money.