The Challenge of the Nonprofit Board Meeting: Some Tips for Board Chairs

The Challenge of the Nonprofit Board Meeting: Some Tips for Board Chairs

By Eugene Fram

The new director sits down at his first board meeting and turns to the director sitting beside him. “What am I supposed to do?” he asks the more experienced director who replies, “Pity the Board Chair!”

One of the biggest challenges for a president or board chair is to run a tight and meaningful meeting. Without careful planning and new approaches, the obligatory periodic 1.5 hours with the directors can also be a major frustration. Directors often either don’t show up or appear to be bored, tired, disinterested clock-watchers during this important effort to collectively oversee the state of the organization.

Here are some ideas- some innovative, some old stand-byes- that may help the chair ”Preside” more effectively. Be sure to sit down with the CEO well before the scheduled meeting to set the agenda, establish meeting goals and brainstorm the format. Anticipate the inevitable “bumps in the road’ and how best to handle them. Agree to try a new idea occasionally to facilitate discussion, nurture participation, and generally engage the directors.

A Good Starter: take the first 10 minutes of a meeting to ponder such mission-related questions as these:*

• Who would miss our organization if we weren’t here?

• If we could do one thing right now that would improve the organization (assuming neither time nor money were an issue) what would it be?

• If we were to start a new nonprofit with our current mission what would it look like organizationally?

Let the discussions take place with paired directors who then record their answers; those that have potential can be added to future meeting agendas.

Staff Reports: Staff presentations at board meetings provide valuable information to the board which keeps the directors current with “inside” information. The reports should, however, be time limited. Request a brief outline of the presentation and email it to directors ahead of time. The board will then be prepared board to ask pertinent questions at the meeting.

Take Charge! Tangential issues can sidetrack discussions. The chair is empowered to call attention to this when it occurs. I have been in this situation a number of times. It happened once when I chaired a board in which client fees are largely determined the budgeted income. In building the budget, management both board and management had previously approved fees for the coming year. However, during this particular full board discussion, several directors began to digress by questioning the fee structure in place. As chair, I was obligated to remind the directors that management was responsible for the already adopted fee structure… then proceeded to move the discussion forward in the right direction.

Cancel the meeting if there are no important policy, strategy or oversight issues to fill the agenda. The directors will appreciate the fact that you value their time. A friend of mine, newly elected to a board, quickly resigned after attending a meeting when the directors were asked to provide comments on a routine slide presentation. He pleaded unspecified work related pressures, but the real reason was obvious. Board members need the opportunity to make meaningful contributions or they are likely to disengage

Whatever Happened to Good and Welfare? The old-fashioned go-around announcing big events in the lives of the directors brought together the board as a community. Not a bad way to end a meeting. Today’s boards often lack collegiality.

“Good Meeting!” tends to be the exit line for volunteer directors who see value in being polite to each other. Don’t be too eager to accept their cordial fly-by assessment. Debrief with the CEO while the meeting is fresh in your mind; identify the flaws and triumphs so the next meeting will benefit from the lessons learned.

*Tom Okarma (2013), “Boards Presidents That Don’t Bore,” Vantage Point, Apriol18th.


  1. Dr. Fram,
    Good points all the way around. Work that gets members of a board to engage in meaningful work before, during and/or after that board meeting is crucial to their commitment. Sending staff reports and other items out before the meeting can really stimulate conversation. Thanks for these reminders, I have a board meeting this afternoon!


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