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  Board Should be Advancing Mission Rather Than Wasting Time Potpourri

Canadian FundRaiserI 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 to greatness.

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 supports management.

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 business.

Use a scorecard because it summarizes progress and focusses discussion

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, informed counsel.

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 every meeting

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 issues?

Did the agenda focus the board and allow sufficient time for important matters?

Was the information provided in advance clear, and what you needed?

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 missions deserve.

For further information: Lyn McDonell, governance and organizational effectiveness consultant, 31 Scotswood Rd., Toronto ON M1R 3N3, 416/444-5931, lyn.mcdonell@rogers.com. This article first appeared in Charity Channel’s Nonprofit Boards and Governance Review.

Canadian FundRaiser
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