"Influence strategy (Snore). Oversee management (Zzzzzz). Guard against undue risk or compliance issues. (Zzzzz). Really, Susan? This is not the time to sleep! We’re trying to run an effective board meeting here.”

We get it. Sometimes even the phrase "board meeting" can involuntarily make people’s eyes begin to close in anticipated boredom, but before we lose you, understand you’re not to blame. Years of mundane, ineffective, general or off-topic meetings have given board meetings a bad rep. But here’s the thing. A nonprofit is only as effective as their board of directors. And boards of directors are only as effective as their board meetings.

So what makes an effective board meeting (Besides plenty of coffee and snacks)? Of course, there are the basic components to any board meeting, but we believe in a secret sauce that will take your board meeting from good to great, from volunteer to movement leader, from good Samaritan to superhero, from...okay, you get the picture.

Let’s start with the basics first: what happens before, during, and after the meeting. Once we cover the basics, we’ll share the secret sauce to stop sleeping and start running ultra-effective board meetings.

Pre-Meeting Prep

Some orders of business during a typical board meeting are routine and will not require much discussion. Let’s call these “updates”. One of the best ways to keep a board meeting running smoothly and efficiently is to compile all these routine updates into a singular document that you can send to your board of directors ahead of time. Other items you’ll want to send ahead of the board meeting includes minutes from the previous meeting, financial reports, director reports, or other business filings.

Lastly, the most important tool for running an effective board meeting is the upcoming meeting’s agenda. Every meeting agenda needs to clearly identify decisions the board must make, and only include items both strategic and mission-focused in nature. Send all of these documents (routine updates, previous meeting minutes, reports, business filings, upcoming agenda), via email at least five days prior to the scheduled meeting. Here’s a checklist!

SUPERHERO TIP: Liven up the email using an appropriate, light-hearted GIF that any nonprofit can relate to. If this seems a bit too outlandish for your particular board of directors, consider including a short thank-you shout-out at the end of the email, highlighting someone who really contributed to the last meeting (everyone appreciates a nice pat on the back for a job well done).

It's Meeting Time

Because you took the time to prep before the meeting, the actual meeting can be better utilized for discussion, decisions and high-level problem-solving.

Structure for an effective meeting might run as such:

  • Team Building (optional): Take a few minutes before diving into business to break bread and allow board members the opportunity to get to know one another.

  • Routine Updates: These items were sent ahead of time. Does anyone have any questions?

  • New and Old Business

    • The bulk of the meeting should be here

    • Utilize reports (which were sent ahead of time) to support decisions

    • Listen and ask for opinions

  • Recognize and Thanks: Take a minute to acknowledge those that contributed to moving the meeting forward

  • Review Action Items: Clearly state and designate action items before closing the meeting.

Beyond adhering to a simple meeting structure, it’s crucial to have a clear understanding of roles and responsibilities for everyone in attendance. This understanding allows everyone in attendance to play to their strengths to solve problems, which is the essence of effective board meetings.

There are a few shared responsibilities among executive directors and board of directors, which include strategic planning, fundraising, and periodically evaluating the organization.

In addition, executive directors are specifically responsible for managing nonprofit staff, developing and managing policies and programs, and acting as a staff liaison between the organization and its board of directors. Keeping this in mind before entering a board meeting is important because it allows an executive director to identify relevant challenges they may be facing that could benefit from the board’s attention and problem-solving. For example, if the ED is struggling to motivate a particular staff member, to the extent they may have to fire them, they could add this as an agenda item to see if anyone on the board has ideas or past experience solving a similar predicament.

In turn, board members are responsible for the oversight of legal, financials, management, and programs. This covers everything from ensuring the organization operates in accordance with its mission and purpose for which it was granted tax-exempt status, to setting and approving the annual budget, to even ensuring the availability of financial resources, including personal donations and organization fundraising activities. With such important responsibilities and in order to run board meetings effectively, it’s best practice to implement an onboarding process for new board members, so everyone understands what is expected of them.

Specific to board members, you’ll want to appoint a board chair to facilitate the meeting. Second only to a meeting agenda, a good board chair is perhaps your most valuable tool in running effective board meetings. A good board chair understands your organization’s governance principles, possesses knowledge of your organization’s industry and operations, and exudes social and organizational skills. They understand each board member’s strengths and actively engages them. This person is open but firm. They encourage and allow opinions to flow but move through all agenda items on time. They set the tone in every meeting and work collaboratively with the executive director to mold the board’s culture.

Let us repeat: a nonprofit is only as effective as its board of directors. A board of directors is only as effective as their board meetings. Board meetings are only as effective as the problems they solve by understanding the responsibilities and strengths of those in attendance.

SUPERHERO TIP: Focus all meetings around this simple meeting mantra: Decisions, not updates. During particularly dense meetings, use this mantra as your north star for efficiency.

After the Meeting

Whew! We’re so glad you’re still with us considering we haven’t even disclosed the secret sauce yet! Don’t worry, we’re almost there. And, as a reward for making it through all we covered above, we’ll let you off easy with this one.

After the meeting, just make sure to follow up with the meeting minutes within 24-48 hours, while action items are still top of mind.

SUPERHERO TIP: Don’t forget.

And Finally...the Secret Sauce

Okay. So how do we keep Susan awake and thoroughly engaged during board meetings? How do we make good board meetings great?

Holding position as a board member for an organization you truly believe in is a huge honor in and of itself. But according to former March of Dimes ED and consultant Erin Chidsey, board members, like everyone else, don’t want to simply hold a title. They want to contribute and participate in meaningful ways. They value opportunities to solve your organization’s complex challenges by tapping into and sharing their unique expertise. Complex challenges might include defining who your constituency is, what keeps the ED awake at night, and how you can run a cost-benefit analysis on potential new programs.

With this in mind, it’s crucial to have an onboarding experience already in place, ready for implementation. Within that onboarding experience, sit down with each new board member to identify their strengths, discover what makes them excited about their role, and then set measurable, realistic and time-bound goals for them to accomplish. That’s the secret sauce.

Goal-setting and accountability are the game-changing strategies incentivizing board members to stay engaged during every meeting because every single meeting is now an opportunity to move one step closer to their goals. In doing this, you’re carving out the chance for them to contribute and participate in meaningful ways.

After building in accountability with goal-setting, schedule the times you’ll meet with each member to assess progress against their goals. Will you meet monthly or quarterly? Schedule hard dates on the calendar to ensure these check-ins actually happen. During check-ins, have board members complete a self-assessment in addition to your own assessment.

SUPERHERO TIP: Ensure each board member’s goals are S.M.A.R.T. (Specific. Measurable. Attainable. Relevant. Time-bound.)

From board meeting basics to the secret sauce, you are now equipped with all the necessary tools to start running ultra-effective board meetings. Plus, Susan’s finally awake. She’s engaged. She’s excited to contribute to the success of your organization. You’re welcome. Meeting adjourned.

* Interested in more resources for Executives and Board of Directors? Check out our Funraise’s webinar on creating a Kick-Ass Board of Directors or download their Work-with-your-Board Workbook.

This guest post was written by Erin Booker from Funraise.