once worked with someone who, when he found a meeting boring,
would figure out the true cost of the meeting. He would estimate
the salaries of those present, calculate a per hour rate, add in
travel, accommodation and venue costs, and then come up with his
guess of how much the event was really costing. The dollar
figure was always a jaw-dropper. That old chestnut “time is
money” applied. Meetings are expensive.
The most precious asset of your directors is their time in board
meetings. While a board meeting is the occasion for the board to
exercise oversight and transact business, in that short time
frame, good boards must also lead and inspire the organization
Too often, boards get mired in the weeds. Meetings can be dull,
boring, last too long, get stuck on operational details, focus
on the wrong things, and be irrelevant. Board members can find
it difficult to demonstrate the kind of dynamic oversight that
advances the organization and appropriately challenges and
Root causes can be the lack of experience on the part of the
board members themselves, the long-standing culture of a board,
the style of a chair or chief staff officer, or a mix of these
factors. In any case, when meetings of the board are poorly
organized, weakly executed and dull, directors can soon feel
listless about their governance role and hungry for more impact
on the organization they serve.
How do you put a tiger in the boardroom and create dynamic
worthwhile board meetings? How do good boards make the most of
their precious meeting time? Here are some suggestions:
Propose a “flight plan“ for the
meeting at the outset
Start by creating an annotated
agenda for the chairperson. An annotated agenda outlines the
reason why the item is on the agenda, what the discussion
strategy will be, its time allotment and expected outcome
(whether for decision or for information). At the beginning of
the meeting, the Chair goes over this flight plan. New business
is integrated, time permitting. After this orientation, when
board members vote to approve the agenda, they sign on to
realizing the deliverables of the meeting.
Create a natural flow with important items given space
Structure and sequence the agenda, depending on the natural
flow and logic of the meeting. Consider the importance of items
and the need to pace the group’s energy. Good planning ensures
there is sufficient time to discuss important matters, and the
agenda is not so loaded-up that board members leave the meeting
without a sense of closure. Challenging items which require
board focus and energy should be placed at the top of the agenda
when people are fresh.
However, be flexible. If discussion is going around in circles
and an item threatens to go overtime, a break may be in order.
Encourage the board to deal with the less taxing items, and come
back to the more challenging discussion later. In the second
round, the board’s approach may reflect greater clarity and more
dispatch, the board having just expedited other, more routine
Use a scorecard because it summarizes progress and focusses
Develop a balanced scorecard for the organization. This
single step will leapfrog you over many of your peer
organizations and increase board productivity, not to mention
organizational focus. Too often a chair of a committee or a
staff reports on past activities to the board. Given the weak
discussion that follows, it may almost seem that the purpose of
the report is that there may be praise given. Recognition is
important, however there is a real opportunity cost. The board
is listening to what directors should have read in advance.
Contrast this with a scorecard approach. A balanced scorecard
translates organizational strategy into operational objectives.
This scorecard can summarize up to 20 reports in one document,
showing progress on key measures. It allows the board to see
what is on track and what is not. In a scorecard review, the
board does its job and the staff and committees receive better,
Use consent agendas
Remember those committee chairs whose verbal reports we
bumped from the meeting? These reports can be received in the
board meeting as part of a consent agenda. Consent agendas are
intended to save time, allowing the board to focus on other
items. They bundle routine and non-controversial matters into
one package, to be voted on as a group. While any board member
can single out an item and ask for discussion, it is a terrific
way to deal with a lot of content.
Have an issues discussion or board development speaker at
Create a standing item in the board agenda intended for
discussion on organizational issues, for board development, or
to meet representatives of stakeholders. This is not interesting
fluff. Planned thoughtfully, these discussions will enhance the
board’s insight and oversight. Anticipate some resistance? Start
by encouraging board members to arrive one hour early for a
45-minute special discussion. (The time frame of an hour allows
15 minutes for a break before the formal board meeting begins.)
Make the choice of topic or speaker so compelling and
interesting that every board member will want to arrive in time
to take part.
Evaluate board meetings
Evaluate every board meeting. At adjournment, circulate a
one-pager that asks individual board members to reflect in
writing on the meeting. Ask a couple of these questions,
different ones, after each meeting:
How effective was this board meeting, in your view?
Was there open communication, good teamwork, and participation
by all members?
Did the board demonstrate good process and timely resolution of
Did the agenda focus the board and allow sufficient time for
Was the information provided in advance clear, and what you
Did the board provide sufficient, and appropriate, counsel and
direction to staff?
Did the board deliberate in this meeting with a focus on the
best long-term interests of the organization?
At the next meeting, following acceptance of the minutes, the
chair speaks to the evaluation the board gave itself and that
meeting. When the board hears feedback, its performance is more
likely to show improvement.
Many expectations are now being placed on boards. In the real
world of our organizations, we know that time is limited.
Learning how best to utilize the precious minutes of a board
meeting is part of better governance. When we manage meeting
time well, board meetings transform from “okay” to “great”. It
is also easier to recruit new board members. Most important,
however, the organization gets better leadership – what our
For further information: Lyn McDonell, governance and
organizational effectiveness consultant, 31 Scotswood Rd.,
Toronto ON M1R 3N3, 416/444-5931,
This article first appeared in Charity Channel’s Nonprofit
Boards and Governance Review.