Chairing Nonprofit Boards or Committees? Beware of Accolades!
By Eugene Fram
“Great Meeting!” That’s the pro forma exit line often delivered by nonprofit volunteers to the chair when the meeting is over. The meeting may or may not have been productive; the leader may or may not have been stellar. But it’s in the volunteer’s DNA to toss a parting compliment to the chair, also a volunteer. Here are my suggestions for conducting a meeting that will have at least a chance of earning the accolades.
Reporting on Operations: Keep this section to a minimum. Attach a list of routine, non-financial items to the agenda and make sure it reaches directors a week before the meeting. A Consent Agenda can be used for routine legal items or issues that need to be noted in the minutes. When directors attempt to micromanage operational issues,(e.g. try to suggest ad copy), the chair needs to take charge and redirect the discussion, perhaps by encouraging the director who is talking to complete the discussion off-line with the CEO
Strategic/Policy Topics: These topics should always be central to the agenda, even if they are only updates on the work of board-staff committees. Completed committee reports need to be allotted substantial sections of the agenda, especially if they are coming up for a final vote.
Avoid Information Dumps: Examples: A CEO who simply reads the details of accreditation guidelines that nobody will remember. An enthusiastic staff member who presents a report without having reviewed it with the CEO to make certain he/she stays within the allotted time. A chair needs to diplomatically interrupt a director unproductively consuming meeting time to give an ad hoc speech. Many of these problems can be avoided if the CEO and chair anticipated them and have a redirection strategy in place.
Focus On Discussing Outcomes & Impacts: Also in the nonprofit environment there is a tendency to have meetings default to discussions of processes instead of outcomes and impacts. Discussions of processes are more interesting and more tangible. Outcomes and impacts are more future oriented. The chair needs to be alert to this default and ready to handle it.
Solving Problems: After every meeting the CEO and chair need to define what organizational problems have been put to rest as a result of the meeting. However, occasionally a meeting might get out of hand without any problems being solved. Records need to be kept to be certain this doesn’t become a trend. If it does, the issues must be identifies.
An Offline Suggestion: Most nonprofit volunteer directors only see each other occasionally. At board and committee meetings, some chairs take 10 minutes at the end of the meeting to ask each one to comment what is going on in their personal or professional lives. Those who use the technique report it helps with team collegiality.
The Bottom Line: “Great meetings “are hard to come by. There are almost always moments of frustration and/or apparent progress. It is up to the chair to do a realistic post-mortem after each, recognizing what “works” with his/her constituents to move the organization forward. Some of the above suggestions can help produce tangible impacts that will assuredly merit heart-felt kudos from his/her fellow volunteers.