By Regenia Bailey / Guest Editorial
Outside of the few wonkish people who really enjoy board meetings, these events aren’t usually very sexy or exciting. They’re often filled with overly detailed minutes of previous meetings, bewildering financials and verbal committee reports that drone on and on without any call for input or action.
What’s a dedicated board member to do when meeting agendas and structures cool his or her passion for the work of the organization? It may be time to consider a board meeting makeover.
Retool the agenda
Minutes are not transcriptions. They should be focused and brief. Their purpose is to document all board decisions made at the meeting and highlight key points of the board discussion about those decisions.
Additionally, the minutes should include information about the logistics of the meeting –
the date, the location and the list of attendees. The purpose of reviewing the minutes from previous meetings is for the board to confirm the decisions it has made and hold itself accountable for those decisions. Minutes help shape the agendas of committee work and future board meetings.
Financial statements should be presented in clear, readable formats that provide context for the numbers. As new members come onto the board, it is helpful to provide detailed information about the financial formats during board orientation or during a portion of a board meeting. Financial statements that provide the current financial information with a comparison to last year’s numbers, as well as to the organization’s adopted budget figures, provide context to the financial information that is presented. Context enables board members to more easily understand the organization’s financial health and promotes discussion about what needs to happen to keep things on track (or to get back on track).
Written reports from the chief executive and from committees should be provided in the agenda packet. If the board needs to make decisions related to staff or committee activities, these issues should be presented as separate agenda items. Any additional information board members may need for those decisions should also be included in the agenda packet.
Often committee or staff members are asked to provide comments about their written reports at the board meeting. Without careful facilitation, comments can expand into an overview of the full report or even introduce a new topic that invites board discussion and input. The board chair should be prepared to politely, but firmly, step in if comments stray from the topic at hand or take too much time.
Look to the future
Board meetings should be more about looking forward than looking in the past. It’s difficult for a board to lead an organization when it spends much of its meeting time reviewing what has already occurred. Once the agenda items that review past activities are retooled and contained, there will be more time at board meetings for discussion and decision items that focus on the organization’s future.
As the agenda is developed, the board chair and chief executive should consider what the board needs to address at the meeting to make reasonable progress toward its annual strategic objectives, its work plan and its budget goals. In addition to the one-time items on its annual work plan, every board should have an annual calendar for routine tasks like budget development, board member recruitment and orientation, and the chief executive’s evaluation.
Connect to the mission
Many boards have a mission moment or other opportunities on the meeting agenda for members or other stakeholders to talk about their personal connections to the organization’s mission. These can provide powerful reminders of the importance of the organization’s work and additional context for the decisions made during the meeting.
Reminders and connections to the mission throughout the meeting can also help focus and unify board members during difficult and divisive discussions, motivate the group when it is faced with a challenging activity like a large fundraising event, and strengthen board members’ engagement with the organization.
A meeting makeover is not a quick fix for waning interest on the part of previously committed board members, but it can be a first step toward reconnecting with what brought them to the board table in the first place. If nothing else, retooling the meeting agenda will help increase the effectiveness of the board, better using the talents and skills around the table as the group makes future-oriented decisions about the organization.
Regenia Bailey is a consultant and coach to nonprofits and small businesses at her firm, the Bailey Leadership Initiative. She is a former mayor of Iowa City and teaches business courses at Kirkwood Community College. For more information, visit www.baileyleadershipinitiative.com.