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Whether your concern is strategic planning for nonprofits, government body, large corporation or startup, boards face similar challenges when it comes to making meetings matter.
When we say ‘matter,’ we mean making sure that board meetings are about action. It means being focused on items that are actually going to help move the organization forward versus being focused on items that should be left to the management team to handle. It means that time isn’t wasted looking for documentation and that the discussion stays on agenda.
“At Meals On Wheels, all vice-presidents of a department prepare a report each month that populates a management report distributed to the board,” Adam Hauser, CEO of Meals on Wheels Central Texas said. “We also have general guidelines and formats for the monthly management reports and detailed agendas for all board meetings.”
For better board meeting management, you need to think beyond the boardroom and consider your board meetings in three parts:
Better Board Meeting Step One: Preparation
This starts with setting an agenda that is primarily focused on the action items that will help achieve the goals of the board as they align with the vision, mission and values of the organization. Ideally, 50 percent or more of time in every board meeting should be focused on action items.
Get board materials out in advance and make the consumption of the information in them as easy as possible. Board packets are time-consuming to prepare, expensive to disseminate and often overwhelming in terms of content. Board management and board meeting software can streamline this process saving time and money by providing members with online access to materials. Some board meeting software even links the agenda to the relevant pieces of content to make navigating board packets quick and easy.
“The best strategy I have found for making sure our board members are prepared is to draft my report a few days before it has to go out to allow time for other staff to review it and to get any missing data from them,” said Marjorie Mulanax, executive director of Hospice Austin. “In my opinion a prepared board member has read the agenda, the minutes, the executive director’s report, the various dashboards, and the summary of our financial statements.”
Encourage members to do their homework. By getting board materials out in advance and making them easy to access, there’s no excuse for board members not to come prepared to meetings with their discussion points ready to go.
Better Board Meeting Step Two: Attendance
Organization and communication are a crucial part of ensuring board members show up to meetings, so make it easy for them. Be consistent, stick to a schedule and always communicate your expectations well in advance.
“All board members are given the annual meeting schedule at the beginning of each year and we send frequent reminders by email before each meeting including board meeting materials and reports,” Hauser said. “We allow our members to call in, but they are encourage to – and almost always – attend in person.”
Stay focused on the agenda. Don’t let external events, organizational gossip and management minutia take you off track. Be present. This seems simple enough, but when board members haven’t prepared properly and are spending their time shuffling through paperwork and looking for information instead of participating in the discussion, the meeting is going to go off track and not remain laser-focused on the action items that matter.
“The board chair is key to keeping meetings on track,” Mulanax said. “We have found it extremely helpful for the board chair and the executive director to meet a day or two before the board meeting to run through the agenda. This serves as a dress rehearsal, helps to identify missing information and gives both parties a sense of how much has to be covered.”
Taking minutes is an obligation of every board meeting, but don’t forget to capture action items. Every single discussion results in some type of follow-up item, so make sure those items are captured, assigned and shared in real time. Capturing actions is an important way to keep and hold the board and its members accountable. And don’t forget to include the action item list on the agenda of the next board meeting so you can follow up on progress.
Better Board Meeting Step Three: Collaboration
While you should capture actions during the board meetings, it’s in between meetings that the real work happens. To keep enthusiasm and morale high, your members and executive team should be encouraged to share updates and engage with evidence and other materials that demonstrate momentum towards goal achievement. Some board meeting software allows you to capture the work and conversations between board members alongside the documents on which they are collaborating. This can be especially helpful if your board has a larger gap of time between meetings.
“During the months the board does not meet, I send out a board update by email,” Hauser said. “The executive committee of the board meets every month, and the CEO and board chair meet several times every month.”
If it feels like milestones and dates can sometimes be a little slippery, you can use board software to automate the process of setting and monitoring progress against goals and generate reports that clearly show progress against action items, making sure everyone is on the same page and increasing the accountability of everyone involved.
At the end of the day board members should be effective champions and ambassadors for the organization. By providing them with the information they need in a timely format and by making effective use of meeting time, they will be able to speak intelligently when they are representing you to their networks in the community.
“I think as long as a board member is asking questions in good faith, with the organization’s best interest at heart, the meeting will be productive,” Mulanax said.