When I was in second grade, S&H Green Stamps were all the rage. Who else remembers those? You could trade them in for rewards at your local grocery stores in the 1960s.
Well, the nuns over at St. Joseph’s Grammar School in North Plainfield, NJ were obsessed with the opportunity these stamps represented so they enlisted the entire school community to collect and donate them. Each class was given a certain allotment of stamps that they could use to buy something for their classrooms.
We spent hours fantasizing about all the things we could get and then we saw it — the coolest cuckoo clock ever! (It wasn’t this one.) Of course, our vote was unanimous…
Stop and think for a second — we were 2nd graders. A big class (with over 30 kids!) of chatty, inattentive, difficult to corral, 2nd graders. Now imagine this classroom with a cuckoo clock went wild every 15 minutes.
I’ll be honest — Sister Killian did not have much academic rigor when it came to her teaching style. She was (unlike many of the nuns at St. Joseph) lovely and sweet and kind…but I don’t really remember learning anything of substance that year. But I do remember that we started learning even less the day the cuckoo clock arrived.
From then on, every day around 9:45am the clock would cuckoo. So about 5-7 minutes before then, all work stopped. Why? We had to get ready — we certainly didn’t want to miss the show…
As soon as the clock struck 9:45, it began. The cuckoo clock went wild and captured our attention. So much so, that it took another 3 minutes for the classroom to recover from what I called “cuckoo clock afterglow.” The room would buzz with excitement until finally, Sister Killian would say, “Now get back to work.”
But by then it would be 9:52am and guess what? The 10:00am cuckoo clock show was just 8 minutes away…
This was a highlight of my grammar school career and according to my parents, a lost year of school.
But, I know you’re probably thinking, “What the heck does this random childhood stories have to do with a monthly board meeting?”
Allow me to explain…
DO YOUR BOARD MEETINGS HAVE THE CUCKOO CLOCK PROBLEM?
From the day the cuckoo clock arrived to our 2nd grade classroom, we learned things in 2-3 minute segments (between the cuckoo prep and the afterglow).
Can you imagine how hard it was for Sister Killian to get us to focus for just a few moments before all eyes turned to the wall? Or how hard it was for us to retain these tiny bursts of education?
This is what I see when I see nonprofit organizations having monthly board meetings. They may work for some organizations but I am here to tell you that for most organizations they cause many of the same problems that the cuckoo clock brought into our 2nd grade classroom.
I’m often asked, “how often should our nonprofit board meet?”
To be honest, it’s a mixed bag in the sector — we have quarterly meetings, some boards meet six times a year, and many have a monthly board meeting.
But if you want my advice, as a general rule of thumb, larger organizations benefit from longer quarterly meetings and smaller organizations benefit from meetings every other month.
Keep reading to learn my thoughts on why.
THE MONTHLY BOARD MEETING TRAJECTORY
Let’s say your board meeting is on February 1. Your focus usually starts turning away from your day-to-day work and towards the cuckoo clock on the wall — your next board meeting.
Here’s how this usually goes.
- Mid January: You being to think about the agenda or plan to write reports.
- Late January: Your board reports are done, presentations are ready, and you’ve sent the materials out (cue the cuckoo prep).
- February 1: CUCKOO! The day of the board meeting arrives. You enjoy the show (which ends up being a short meeting).
- Early February: Your org’s ED sends out a follow up memo to the board with answers to any questions that came up (the cuckoo afterglow begines)
- Mid February: The monthly board meeting planning cycle starts all over again.
See the problem here?
WHAT’S WRONG WITH THE MONTHLY BOARD MEETING CYCLE?
So, if you’ve made it this far, then I hope you’ve guessed that I’m not a huge fan of monthly board meetings. Here are a few things I have observed with boards that stay on this cycle:
- EDs and their staff end up spending more time planning for and following up after board meetings than doing the work. Look at that schedule above. When does the work get done? When does an ED think bigger? More strategically?
- Board meetings follow a highly predictable pattern because there is no time to plan for any kind of interesting or engaging board meeting agendas.
- The board starts to see its work as overseeing the work of the staff. The board doesn’t get to do any strategic or generative thinking (which leads to a frustrated ED).
- The more often a board meets, the closer the board is to getting stuck in the weeds or the operations. The board becomes an operational extension because there is no time or bandwidth to bring higher level discussions to the board. So the board begins to believe that in the weeds is where they belong.
- There is no time to build or engage board standing committees who can then report out on their activities at board meetings. Board members see their obligation as the monthly meeting — and those who do engage in committee work feel burned out because there may be nearly weekly obligations.
- The board hears too little about the inspirational work of the organization. As a result, board members feel uninformed and progressively less passionate about the work, making them less enthusiastic about engaging others to become a part of the work. And, the ED gets frustrated that the board is not fundraising or at least bringing prospects to the table.
Make the case for longer, more engaging bi-monthly meetings. Generally, it’s not a tough sell. Most board members wish meetings were less frequent and want the meeting to be of value to you. They also want to feel like they are contributing meaningfully.
Plus, it’s hard to get committees meeting regularly when board members have a monthly board meeting. So with fewer meetings, you get stronger committees who will come to every board meeting with more fleshed out reports to share.
So in this new world, you kick start a few standing meetings that meet in the “off” months. They have a charge and some goals and they can rotate presenting at the board meeting.
So let’s say a Nominations Committee meets in February with the goal of coming up with a list of priority skills and lived experience that the committee has landed for recruitment for the year. The March meeting gives them the chance to present and the board a chance to discuss the priorities and brainstorm creative recruitment approaches.
Also, with more notice, you can plan for guests to join meetings – clients, elected officials, funders. You can build engagement, enrichment and a big dollop of inspiration into meetings that are less frequent.
How does that sound?
I promise you it works. Many members of our Nonprofit Leadership Lab have followed this recipe, made this pitch successfully and are seeing higher levels of engagement with the board.
As with any change, paint a picture of how the board experience will be better and how their contribution will be more meaningful and you’ll have your board at hello.