Two hours of committee reports. That’s what happened at the last board meeting I attended. It was long. It was void of substantive discussion. And it was completely uninspiring. I didn’t feel like I was challenged or that I had much to contribute. My board experience is not unusual, I’m afraid. I’ve been doing a lot of work with boards recently and part of that work has involved assessments to help identify potential needs and opportunities. From the board chair to the executive director, I consistently hear “we have passionate and committed board members”. But when we get down to board meeting effectiveness, the excitement starts to wane. The smile on many nonprofit leader’s faces turns to more of a grimace and the conversation takes on a forced politeness, so as to not come across as too critical.

One board member called their meetings “boring”. And an executive director pined: “I wish our board meetings were more productive, more inspirational”. We have board members, some of our most committed volunteers, who have expertise and influence yet the board meetings often turn into bland discussions that no one will recall two days later.
Are we wasting our board member’s value by enabling weak meeting agendas? Too many nonprofit institutions and their board leadership are failing to provide a suitable platform for proper debate and discussion at meetings. It begs the question: Are we asking the board to discuss issues, or are we simply asking them to approve each report on the agenda and move on?

One experience comes to mind regarding my own experience serving on a board. It illustrates how a lack of valuable discussion by the board can have a potentially harmful outcome for the organization:
At a meeting, the board chair was seeking a motion to remove a fellow board member from service due to lack of attendance at board meetings. The board chair asked for and received a motion to remove the board member and when it came time for discussion, what followed was complete silence – until I spoke up. I asked what we knew about this individual’s personal and professional situation, and what may be keeping them from attending meetings. No one knew. There had been several attempts by the executive director and board chair to reach the absent board member. No response was ever received.

After further discussion, I requested the motion be amended to do further outreach to the board member and to have a conversation with them first before any decision to remove was finalized. What concerned me was that my fellow board members were ready to rubber stamp his removal – without knowing all the facts and without any discussion.
Many boards have a common ailment that is affecting their ability to properly govern the organizations they represent: A lack of meaningful discussion and debate.

So, what is it that holds board members back from having rich conversation? Here are a few common concerns:

  • Appearance that they do not understand the discussion topic
  • Being considered a “problem” by speaking up
  • Fear of someone disagreeing with/rejecting their viewpoint
  • Fear of asking a “stupid” question

The truth is, the role of board members is to govern, not slog through agenda items and pat themselves on the back when the meeting is over. Having effective board meetings sometimes involves asking difficult questions, probing further, seeking clarity, questioning decision making, offering alternate ideas or concepts, and standing up for what is best for the organization. You can be certain that if you ask a question at a meeting, there are probably others who had the same question and did not have the courage to ask.

Speaking up can be difficult. And it can be uncomfortable. But it is what we sign up for when we agree to serve on a board of directors. The role of board members is to govern the organization. Solid governance requires strong leadership, authentic and respectful discussion, and action to move the organization forward.
To foster meaningful dialogue, save room on the meeting agenda for substantive discussion. Here are three practical ideas to get the conversation moving:

  • Select a challenge your organization is facing regarding the strategic plan and ask the board for feedback and suggestions
  • Create a philanthropic discussion at each meeting and get board members talking about fundraising
  • Move your committee reports to consent agendas to save more time for meaningful dialogue

Remember the board member I mentioned who was about to get the boot? The board chair was finally able to connect with him and learned that he was, indeed, having some professional struggles which impacted meeting attendance. He was offered the option to resign if he felt he was unable to fulfill his board commitment.
This situation could have gone very wrong if the board had failed to have respectful debate and simply “fired” him. But because we engaged in healthy debate and then reached out to him in an empathic manner, he was able to leave the organization with grace and dignity. He was entirely grateful for how we handled his situation. And in return, he connected the organization to a key community figure who became a new major donor!
Nonprofit organizations can benefit greatly when board members ask questions, when they challenge ideas, and when they offer alternative viewpoints and solutions. If you tweak your board meeting agenda, reducing lengthy reports and allowing for more discussion and debate, you’ll see a difference in your board’s effectiveness and impact. When we invite someone to serve on a board, we are seeking their knowledge and professional experience, their influence in the community (social capital), their passion for the organization’s mission, and their ability to engage others in our mission. It is our responsibility to put those skills and qualities to good use.

Doug Hartjes is the founder and president of COR Consulting, Inc. – a firm dedicated to helping leadership, boards and staff achieve fundraising and nonprofit excellence.