Crazy non-profit board meetings and some advice for board volunteers


Dani Robbins is the Founder & Principal Strategist at Non Profit Evolution located in Columbus, Ohio. I’ve invited my good friend and fellow non-profit consultant to the first Wednesday of each month (or Thursday as is the case this month) about board development related topics. Dani also recently co-authored a book titled “Innovative Leadership Workbook for Nonprofit Executives” that you can find on Amazon.com. 

Board Meetings Gone Wrong

By Dani Robbins

regretsBoards meetings can quickly go from productive to destructive in any number of ways. The following are just a few lessons I’ve learned throughout the years and thought board volunteers might benefit from reading:

The morning after is too late

I cannot tell you the number of times in my career that a Board member has called me the morning after a board meeting appalled by something the Board voted to approve the night before, at a meeting they themselves attended. I can absolutely tell you the number of times those very same Board members have voiced their objections in the room: zero!

The next morning is too late. If you do not like the motion that is on the table, it is not only your right to object out loud and on the record, it’s your obligation.

Sometimes individual Board members come up with wacky (read: dangerous) ideas. When those ideas become motions that get seconded is when they go from wacky to possible. Motions that have no second die, and so do the ideas that spawned them.

Motions that are seconded prompt the chair to call for a discussion. If you are uncomfortable with the motion that is on the table, I implore you to speak. Silence is acquiesce. It is usually too late (and much harder) to address something after a vote has been concluded.

hell3When you don’t know where you’re going any road will get you there

No written agenda — or an agenda that isn’t followed — practically guarantees a long, meandering meeting that will only serve to frustrate those in the room, but won’t accomplish much beyond that. It’s also likely that such a meeting will not produce formal votes or minutes that capture what the Board has committed to accomplishing.

No strategic plan works the same way. In the absence of a plan, you will have a lot of people working on a lot of things that may or may not align because the Board has not articulated and voted upon a formal direction.

If everyone’s in charge, no one’s in charge

Boards elect Chairs to be in charge (of the Board). It’s awkward and feels weird the first time you chair a meeting, but the weirdness will pass when you begin to lead. However, not leading guarantees the weirdness moves in and sets up shop.

It’s the forth Tuesday at 4; let’s meet!

Don’t have a Board meeting if you have nothing to talk about. If there are no committee reports and no business for the Board to address, cancel the meeting.

At the end of the day, there’s no accounting for crazy

The easiest way to avoid crazy in the board room is to not let crazy on the board. A Board Development plan and a formal process to elect board members will weed out inappropriate board prospects, before they become inappropriate board members.

meeting1Time of Death: 2 hours after we started talking about this

Discussion that seems to be spiraling can be stopped by two of my favorite phrases:

  1. Let’s call the question” which in Board speak means enough talking, let’s vote.
  2. Let’s send this back to committee.” This phrase, when used by the chair, is a declarative statement that the board meeting has devolved into a committee meeting. When used by anyone other than the chair, it is a prompt to the chair that the discussion has gone on too long. In either case, there should be a vote, reflected in minutes, that the motion was be tabled pending the committee’s review and consideration of the issues raised.

What’s the Executive Director’s role?

Good Execs do their homework before the meeting and usually know how people are going to vote before the meeting begins……which doesn’t ensure they will do so.

If a meeting goes off track, Execs can:

  • stall by whispering the potential negative impact to the Chair and hoping they agree;
  • offer to get more information and bring it back to the board at a future meeting; or
  • recommend the motion be sent back to committee prior to being voted upon.

If you have to, board volunteers can object out loud and on the record but be aware that doing so will spend significant political capital. It also may not help, which does not mean you should not do it.

As mentioned in a post titled “Hiring, Supporting and Evaluating the Executive,”

“worrying about keeping your job precludes you from doing your job. You have to do what you believe is best, based on your experience, information and training, within the boundaries of your role and the law. We all know that any day could be the day you quit or get fired. That can’t stop you from leading.”

What’s been your experience? Have you seen Board meetings go off track? What has gotten them back on track? As always, I welcome your insight and experience.
dani sig

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About DonorDreams

Erik got his start working in the non-profit field immediately upon graduation with his masters degree in 1994. His non-profit management and fundraising experience numbers nearly 20 years. His teachable point of view around resource development is influenced by the work of Penelope Burk and those professionals subscribing to a "donor centered" paradigm. Donors have dreams and it is our responsibility to be dream-makers because donors are not ATMs.

Posted on November 7, 2013, in Board development, Board governance, nonprofit, organizational development, volunteers and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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