The One Thing That Makes Board Meetings Worthwhile

Board Meetings Worthwhile

“I don’t want to go to my board meeting.”

Come on. You’ve said it right? Oh please, be honest. You believe in your organization. You love the work. But preparing for a board meeting? Ugh.

Board members – you hate them too. Do you even bother to read the reports? You wanted to but (a) had no time (b) staff sent them late (c) the reports went on for days (d) something about dog and homework.

Most nonprofit leaders I speak with understand intellectually that, done right, board meetings are critical to the health of their organizations. There’s just no other way to create enthusiastic board members who are ready, willing, and able to stand as organizational champions.

But there’s an emotional gap. This dread.

A while back I wrote a post on how to run an effective and productive board meeting. Read A Board Meeting Should Be Like A Bowl Of Wheaties.

But when it comes down to it, there is one thing above all else that makes board meetings worthwhile.

When it’s missing (and it usually is), board meetings make people feel ambivalent at best and turned off at worst.

It may be the single most important thing you do at any board meeting.

WHY ARE BOARD MEETINGS SO PAINFUL?

To better understand the importance of this single most important thing, let’s first dig a little deeper into why board meetings are so painful.

Ask a board member:

  • No one ever asked my opinion about anything. Actually someone did ask me for something. MONEY!
  • The board chair doesn’t know how to run a meeting.
  • It felt like decisions were already made, so what was the point?
  • No one would have noticed if I wasn’t there.
  • Sometimes I wonder why I am even on this board.

Ask a staff member:

  • I spend all this time on reports I know never get read.
  • The board chair doesn’t even know Robert’s Rules of Order.
  • They never asked a single question.
  • The one thing I need them to do is fundraise and all they do is whine.
  • Sometimes I wonder why they are even on the board.

Both groups often find themselves asking the exact same question: Why am I on this board? 

It is the obligation of both the E.D. and the Board chair to design a board meeting that eliminates this question altogether.

THE ONE THING THAT MAKES BOARD MEETINGS WORTHWHILE

It’s ridiculously simple.

Bring the work into the room.

That’s it.

I call it the “Goosebump Moment”.

The Goosebump Moment is the one part of the meeting that stays with you, that becomes a story you can tell, that leads you to talk about the organization at a dinner with friends following the board meeting.

HOW DO YOU CREATE A GOOSEBUMP MOMENT?

It’s easy and I’m going to give you four examples to get your creative juices flowing. None of them are difficult, but they are best used in different scenarios.

The Cameo Appearance

This is a great option for an organization that meets more than quarterly. It’s the easiest, takes the least amount of prep work, and works equally well for direct service and advocacy.

Your most inspiring storytellers are often your program staff. Or they should be. Did you know that some board meetings don’t even include a program report? (If you are one of those organizations, I bet your board is disengaged and your program staff demoralized. This is an easy fix).

My lead program person at GLAAD (now successfully leading another nonprofit – no surprise there) was a first-rate presenter and storyteller. She also felt the power of the work deeply. As an added bonus, she often cried telling stories about our work. Genuine, authentic tears. Her presentations were informative, moving, and powerful. Her passion was ridiculously contagious.

I sat on a board where the program person had a different style. He was a lawyer and he deconstructed cases in a way that non-lawyers could understand. It was like watching an episode of Law and Order, except our organization was helping real live plaintiffs with compelling and moving stories. He told the story with ease, with confidence, with authority, and my goosebumps came in the form of inspiration.

The Skeptical Board Fix

Consider this option if your board has developed any skepticism about the impact of the work.

Here you are looking for one of two things:

  • An external messenger who can speak objectively about the power and impact of your work
  • An external messenger(s) – could be a panel – that put the work of the organization in a broader context, thus educating the board about the sector in which the organization lives

It is very easy to get these kinds of folks to come into a board meeting. They have been touched by the work – a politician, a journalist, a lobbyist, a client – and they will stand ready to support your work by engaging your board. This also gives your board the opportunity to learn and ask questions.

An external validator works wonders. You’ll need at least 30-45 minutes to allocate for this kind of activity; you MUST leave time for questions. This is a good option for quarterly meetings or for every third board meeting if you meet monthly. Also, you do not have to wait until the last minute. You probably could come up with a list of great external cameo folks in 15 minutes with your senior staff. And you know when the board meetings are. You can plan 2-3 for the year and then just do a 60 min prep call with them before the actual meeting day.

The Client Visit

This is terrific for a longer board meeting, and especially good if yours is a national organization that meets in person quarterly.

Pretty self-explanatory. Bring a few clients in over lunch. The Executive Director moderates a panel in which the clients tell their stories – how they came to the organization, how it has transformed them.

This is the “goosebumpiest” method.

The key is planning the discussion, developing the questions and prepping the clients. They don’t have to totally drink the organizational Kool-Aid; in fact clients can be perfect messengers for new services that are desperately needed. And their stories will inspire the board to want to do more!

The Site Visit

If you are a direct service organization, I prescribe this as an “annual must.” I worked with a board recently and in order to do my best work, I went to the organization’s center and met and spoke with clients. Turned out I was in the minority. Two-thirds of the board had NEVER visited the site. Assigning this as annual homework is non-negotiable. Board members MUST walk in the shoes of the clients in order to be the best ambassadors they can be.

Here are two creative approaches.

A Visit and a Story

Give board members two-weeks notice and a two-part homework assignment.

Part 1: Ideally the board member has to go onsite to your organization and have a real conversation with a client. If your organization serves meals, this is easy. The E.D. should provide ample ways the board member can ‘touch’ the organization (if national, a skype or even phone call).

Part 2: Board members come to the meeting and tell the story of that client. After each story, write the client’s name on a post-it and stick it on a board. Reference these clients by name during the meeting. Would that strategy be of benefit to Jane? Remember what Eugene said? Does this solve the challenge he raised?

Improv

Do not roll your eyes. Please stay with me. I have seen this work beautifully.

The staff creates a profile or story of a client before the board meeting, one for each board member.

At the meeting, one by one, each board member plays the role of this particular client and introduces him or herself to the rest of the group. The group can ask some questions to the client persona. Guided notes will help the board member with the improv. The clients should be diverse and represent the array of issues the organization faces.

The board member “becomes” a client for just a few minutes. It can be transformative.

HOW DOES ANYONE HAVE TIME TO ACTUALLY DO THIS? 

I hear you.

  • You maybe think these are long activities and better suited for a retreat.
  • You may believe there’s no time to plan for something on a grand scale like this.

I respectfully disagree. You do have time and you can’t afford not to engage in this kind of work at each and every board meeting.

If you have a large board, do a variation of something you have read above. Maybe not every board member tells a story or does an improv. Maybe if you devote a senior staff meeting to the topic of ‘How do we bring the work into the board room,’ you will get other creative juices flowing.

But every single organization has the time for a program report at the very least.

Let me be very clear. You may have recruited board members who don’t care. But I believe those board members are few and far between.

No goosebumps = no engagement.

No inspiration = no fundraising.

When I put it that simply, can you possibly ignore the need?

In the comments below, share your strategies for bringing the work to life with your board. It is in my mind one of the single most important things you can do to engage your board and make board meetings worthwhile.

Joan Garry
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Joan Garry

Widely known as the "Dear Abby" of nonprofit leadership, Joan works with board and staff as a strategic advisor, crisis manager, change agent and strategic planner. Joan also teaches at the University of Pennsylvania with a focus on nonprofit communications and leadership.
Joan Garry
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  • Debbie Duncan

    One of the most profound experiences I had serving on a board, was a quarterly day-long meeting. Our practice was to have a personal “check-in” in the beginning (3 min per person). As we went around the gathering of 8 or 9, each person reported a major personal life challenge: from the death of a parent to a marriage in crisis, a child battling addiction to a cancer diagnosis and so on. Every single one of us! In the end, we had spend 1½ of the 5 hour allotted meeting time on “check-in”. We knew we had taken too long & would probably have to defer some matters.

    We tackled the agenda, plowed through it and – lo and behold! – we concluded just 10 mins past our scheduled ending time! Amazed, we began our final step of “process analysis” (Each meeting one of us served as “Process Observer”: noting energy levels, where we got stuck, where we worked well together, etc.) After making a few observations of the group dynamic that day, one person suggested that had we NOT taken that 1½ hours of sharing our “troubles”, each of us would have gone through the meeting carrying the unspoken burden and, most likely, have been less effective. Having “laid on the table” the issues we each faced & getting affirmation from our peers, we were much better able to set them aside & focus on our work. I have never forgotten that day.

    Board members are people, too.

    • Cari-Ann Ketterling

      Debbie – Thank you for sharing this story. I couldn’t agree more! We sometimes have to take a step back and realize that, at all levels, we are working with people, real people with real lives, experiencing joys and hardships. It is wonderful to recognize our common humanity.

    • Cindie Alwood

      This was a happy accident at two of our board retreat sessions. I also brought in adult coloring books and colored pencils. I asked them to choose a picture and start coloring it in and asked them to think about – as they were coloring – what, if anything, was keeping them from fully participating in the meeting. After 10 minutes or so we went around the table and that’s where they had a chance to share what was going on. It was extremely powerful for them to trust each other enough to share some very personal and in some cases traumatic information. We talked through it and moved on to the agenda. I wholeheartedly agree that if we had not done that the meeting would not have been productive, side bar convo’s would have happened and engagement in the process would have been absent.