Having spent 30 years in the nonprofit sector, I’ve attended a great number of volunteer board and committee meetings. Some of them were very productive; most were fairly productive, and then there were many that were a total waste of time. These last were usually the furthest from home and held later in the evenings.
One large board faced particular difficulties. Meetings suffered from low attendance and weren’t effective at setting goals and objectives. Officers and chairs took turns boring each other with oral reports about what had happened in the past.
As the staff liaison with that board, I sat down one day with the president and she and I came up with some simple rules that energized the board and helped to attract new members.
- Officer and chair reports of prior activity were required to be submitted in writing. No longer would members be bored by someone reading a long report about what had already happened. These reports were “approved as written,” instead of “approved as read.” Yes, questions could be asked of, say, the treasurer’s report.
- Oral reports focused on the time between now and the next meeting. Their time on the agenda moved from reciting what they had done to posing questions to the board about what assistance they needed between now and the next board meeting. This simple change made all the difference. Where reports had been past tense, now they were “future tense.” Board members were asked for their opinions and to be part of decision-making. Boring reports were replaced by energized discussion. Attendance picked up as board members began making a difference in the meetings.
- We invited guests. Our board meetings were not closed; they were open to the public, so our third step was to encourage board members to bring guests. Within three meetings this change paid off as we recruited a guest to fill a key committee chairmanship.
It took three or four meetings for board members to adjust to the new normal, but by the end of that time they were seeing the results. Meetings were livelier, better attended, more productive, and they were proud to bring guests, some of whom went on to become volunteers or who helped open other doors for us.
It’s important to note that we still used Roberts Rules of Order as our agenda template. It wasn’t the agenda format that was the problem. It’s what the members did with it that created unproductive meetings.
When you’re having problems with effective board meetings think outside the agenda. Consider what we did and see if it works for you.