How Not to Run a Board Meeting

March 15, 2012

Filed under: Board Development — Tags: , — jonathanpoisner @ 10:48 am

I recently observed two of my pet peeves about board meetings in the same meeting.

1. Orally report on past activities, when there was plenty of time to put the report in writing.

2. Framing broad general subjects, rather than specific decisions.

What’s wrong with both.

Let’s start with orally reporting what you could put in writing ahead of time.  This is just a poor use of time.  Your board’s time is one of your most precious resources.  And your board’s time in the same place is even more precious.

The vast majority of people can absorb information quicker reading.  Listening to one person share orally not only wastes time of those who could absorb the information quicker by reading, but it squanders the time your board has to do its most important job: govern.  Governing takes conversation.

What about selecting topics, instead of questions, for board deliberation?  This is perhaps an even bigger time sink.  Adding topics to a board meeting just because it’s always on the agenda is not a reason to schedule an item for the agenda.  And even if it is, you need to give your board some decision or options around which to frame the conversation, or it will be meander.

The conversation I recently witnessed went off in five different directions not just because the board chair didn’t intervene to keep it on a single topic, but because the board chair had no guidance for how to do so since the agenda item was set up as a topic, instead of a decision.

How often should your board meet?

August 4, 2011

Filed under: Board Development — Tags: — jonathanpoisner @ 4:24 pm

I’ve had this question come up in conversation a few times in the last month.

There is, of course, no pat answer.

Here are some factors that would lead me to meet quite frequently (eg. monthly):

  • If the board has real fears about fiscal health and needs to either take charge of it or hold an Executive Director accountable.
  • If the organization lacks staff and the board is therefore responsible for fundraising and program
  • If the organizational lay of the land is in a very rapid state of change

Here are some factors that would lead me to meet either 4 or 6 times per year instead:

  • If there are functioning committees and you want to give committees more time between meetings to do their work.
  • If monthly meetings take up so much time that the board doesn’t feel it has time to meet its fundraising obligations.
  • If less frequent (but longer) board meetings will allow the Executive Director to spend less time doing basic board meeting prep that comes at the expense of fundraising/program.

Of course, if you go to longer board meetings, it does place a higher burden on the Executive Director to come up with other means between board meetings to maintain communications with the board.  I’ve written about the subject of ED-Board communications previously.

In my experience, as organizations mature they should move from more frequent shorter meetings to less frequent longer meetings.   For most organizations, somewhere between 10-16 hours of meetings per year should be sufficient, if there are functioning committees capable of doing the work between meetings.  This is on top of any board retreat that’s about long-range planning, which is worthy of its own blog post.

The Executive Director v. the Board

July 6, 2011

Filed under: Board Development — Tags: — jonathanpoisner @ 3:55 pm

I’m often asked by Executive Directors to give advice as to the division of responsibilities between the staff and board.

Here’s my two cents.

The traditional view is the following:

The board:

  • Financial Due Diligence
  • Help with Fundraising
  • Strategic Direction
  • Hire/Fire/Evaluate the Executive Director
  • Board Recruitment
  • Facilitate its own meetings

The Executive Director:

  • Manage day to day finances
  • Lead Fundraising
  • Create a vision for the board’s use in setting strategic direction
  • Hire/Fire/Evaluate other staff and contractors
  • Develop programs and implement them (either directly or via other staff/contractors)

In the real world, I’ve rarely found the traditional scenario played out.  Almost always, the Executive Director must set the conditions necessary for the board to fulfill its role.

This includes:

  • Setting up systems that allow the board to exercise its financial due diligence, providing them financial statements on a monthly basis in an understandable format with appropriate analysis of how things are going.
  • Providing a clear structure for the board’s fundraising, through a combination of training, materials, ideas, and systems to ensure board members are operating efficiently and not duplicating each others’ efforts.
  • Providing ongoing information about the lay of the land and strategic options so that board decisions regarding the strategic direction of the organization aren’t set in a vacuum.  Almost always in my experience, boards can best provide strategic guidance when provided reasonable alternatives from which to choose rather than having open-ended dialogues.
  • Initiating their own evaluation, including a self-evaluations, and including establishment of personal goals that the board can use for its evaluation of the Executive Director.
  • Staffing the board recruitment process and participating in it or even leading it if necessary to ensure the board is at full strength over time.
  • Providing draft agendas for board chairs and leading the board meetings, even as the chair plays the official facilitator role.  This includes putting together good board packets and getting them out on a timely basis.

It sounds exhausting.  And it is.

But when it clicks — when the ED does one role and then the board plays its role — an organization can truly thrive.   When thinking about my long tenure as an ED, those moments when everything clicked were priceless.

Of course, the above begs the question of how things are different when an organization is small, just getting started, and not yet thriving. Almost always, this means the board must take on more responsibility in some areas and less in others.  I’ll write more about that in a separate blog post soon.

Asking your board for money

May 21, 2011

Filed under: Board Development,Fundraising — Tags: , — jonathanpoisner @ 5:10 pm

I recently heard Nick Fellers of For Impact present.

Great speaker if you ever have the opportunity.

One of the things he suggested that rang true for me is the following:

As Executive Director, you should do a 1 on 1 donor meeting with all board members (with or without your board chair joining you) at least once per year.

Treat them like the major donors that they are.

You’re doing this partly to excite them.

You’re doing this partly to train them on effective fundraising by modeling best practices.

And you’re doing this to ask the to take on more responsibility.

In this day and age, as board members lead complicated lives with competing priorities, you can’t expect a board member who perhaps thinks about your cause an hour a week to always self-motivate.

So go ask them!

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