Once Again: How to Keep Nonprofit Board Members Informed.
By: Eugene Fram
With high performing nonprofit organizations, board members will rarely be invited by the CEO to participate in operational decisions. As a result, management will always have more information than board members. Yet the board still needs to know that is happening in operations to be able to perform their overview process.
The name of the game is for the CEO to communicate the important information and to keep directors informed of significant developments. Still, there’s no need to clutter regular board meetings by reporting endless details about operations.
Following are some practical suggestions:
• An executive director, in response to a blog post I presented, provided a most creative approach. He and the board chair have a weekly conference call, usually on Thursday. Other board members are invited to join the call if they have time. A few days later, the ED sends a brief e-mail to all board members highlighting the important events that took place during the week. (He joked that his high school English teacher would never approve of its format, but the board is always full informed.)
• Probably the more traditional way of keeping board members aware of what is happening within the organization is to have staff frequently make short presentations. I have seen this approach used in dozens or nonprofit board meetings without success. Two problems frequently occur. First the staff person is so enthusiastic about an opportunity to interact with the board members that the presentation continues well beyond the allotted time, and, second, board members raise “micromanagement” level questions, that further extend the presentation session. To solve these problems, the board chair needs to suggest to those seeking more than appropriate detail that the questions can be answered “offline.” In addition, the chief executive should meet with the staff person well ahead of the meeting to make sure that the material to be presented is succinct, and the staff person is well aware of the time constraint. A “dress rehearsal” might even be appropriate for some staff personnel
• Another technique is to use a consent agenda. With a consent agenda, routine and previously agreed upon items are organized together in the pre-meeting agenda and then, hopefully, approved as a group. If one or more board members question an item in the group, it is placed on the agenda for the next board meeting. This process eliminates the time consuming effort of having a separate discussion for each item.
• A third, but controversial,way is for the chief executive to meet with board members informally about every quarter. Occasionally, these meetings are with two directors at one time. At the sessions, the chief executive can discuss the more “entrepreneurial or wild ideas” that might need testing and update directors on operational decisions in greater detail. Some of the meetings can happen quite informally, before or after a committee meeting or after a monthly board meeting. Others can occur at appropriate social events. It is important to have the executive’s assistant keep track of the meetings and then to have authority to make new appointments to meet the quarterly schedule. Obviously, the CEO would need to meet with the board chair more often. If the board is a national one, meeting less frequently or a scheduled phone call are appropriate. One veteran CEO I know meets frequently with two board members. One is a long serving member, and the other is a newly appointed board member. The controversy involved with this proposal is that it takes too much of the CEOs time. Perhaps my experiences are unique, but the the highest performing CEO I have encountered all use it and enjoy the effort involved.
Keeping important information flowing to the board is critical to having a high performing nonprofit. It is a significant responsibility for the CEO.
Thank you Eugene. At different times, previously I have served on three different nonprofit boards, and I was also the audit committee chair for one of them. Sometimes I felt like I was struggling to know what was going on, on the important items, at the nonprofit, and then it was like reading a bunch of materials before the next board meeting in an effort to get caught up, and even then, I only had the materials that someone thought should be sent to me. I should note that I did not have these issues when I was the audit committee chair because I knew what was going on and I was on top of it. I like your comment about the weekly board chair/ED meeting with a brief summary email to the board members, although a weekly summary email seems too often – maybe every two weeks or so. Best to you, David Tate, Esq.
David: Thanks for adding your experiences to the discussion. Gene
I send our Board a weekly summary. In addition, I meet with the Executive Committee once a month separate from the Board meeting.
Casey: Thanks for adding to the discussion. Gene