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Five Ways to Shake up Nonprofit Board Meetings

We all know the feeling: the essential but sometimes routine business that makes up the board meeting agenda can sap board members’ energy. Before you know it, board members are looking at their watches, thinking about their next meal, and planning their great escape. This doesn’t have to happen! Break the tragic cycle of board meeting monotony with these five ideas.

Keep the Mission Front and Center

Encourage your board to connect the work they do with the organization’s mission. Your mission is at the heart of what staff and executive leadership do every day, but it’s easy for board members, who may have only occasional contact with the organization, to lose sight of it. In the case of one of my clients, the board recited the mission statement at the opening of each board meeting. While this came naturally for this group, it might feel contrived to others. I often suggest including the mission at the top of board meeting agendas as a way to remind the board why they are there. Another option is to post your mission statement on the wall in the room where the board meets.

Spotlight Testimonials

Board meetings often seem like endless reports and budget discussions. Liven things up by inviting special guests who can share compelling stories. You might try one of these:

  • Invite a client to describe how the connection to your organization has been important and how it has enriched his life.
  • Ask someone who has been through your program to offer a special take on the work you do and the impact it has. A “program alum” can provide a powerful description of life before and after your organization provided needed assistance.
  • Showcase actors or dancers (for performing arts organizations) to talk about what it means to be affiliated with your organization and the distinguishing characteristics that separate you from the others.
  • Feature your staff. Ask program directors to tell stories that bring to life the work you do.

Who would be on your list?

Think, too, about creative ways to bring these guests into the boardroom. Perhaps a brief video of the first read through of your next production would be invigorating for an arts organization board. For a human services or educational organization, consider a video of children participating in your programs.

Mix It Up

Does your board meeting agenda feel stale? Is looking at the date at the top the only way to differentiate one month from another? Do you feel like there is never enough time to address new business or have strategic or generative conversations? Reconfigure the agenda to ensure that the substantive conversations happen at the beginning of the meeting rather than at the end when board members are tired and ready to be on their way. There is no rule that says you have to begin with committee reports (which should be distributed and read prior to the meeting anyway) and have new business discussions being the only thing between board members and the door. Or, worse yet, not happening at all because the more commonplace business ran overtime.

Another way to shake things up is to ask board members to change where they sit. If you sit in the same place all the time, with the same people next to you and across from you, creativity may be dulled. Not to mention that you don’t talk to new people and gain new insights. Ask board members to move around and get a new perspective on the room, on each other, on the issues.

If there is tension between board members, sometimes breaking their eye contact can mitigate it. Try having them sit on the same side of the table, not next to each other, so that they are unable to face off.

Board Education Can Be Fun

Ongoing board development and education is often a challenge for organizations. There are ways to make this happen in a way that meshes with your board’s culture and means. For instance:

  • Budget permitting, bring in outside speakers with skills to share with your board—for instance, speakers who can demystify evaluation or increase comfort with fundraising.
  • For many years now, Chicago has been sponsoring “One Book, One Chicago.” You can do something similar. Find a book, chapter, or article, with something to say that is meaningful to your organization and/or board. Buy it for the board and give it as a gift. Devise a plan for discussing it at one meeting or over the course of a few meetings.
  • Ask board members to sign up to present on different topics of importance to your organization and lead a discussion. This is a great way to enhance leadership development and encourage board members to step up. Is an executive transition in your organization’s future? Try the Annie E. Casey Foundation monograph, Capturing the Power of Leadership Change.

Don’t Let Your Board Members Get “Hangry”

Does your board meet at a time that could be construed as a mealtime? Do you offer any sustenance? After a long day at their own workplace, hungry board members have only one thing on their minds – when do we eat? Don’t let them get “hangry” (hungry and angry), because they can’t figure out why you don’t serve any food. Discussion and decision making all go more smoothly when stomachs aren’t growling. The social time that accompanies breaking bread together also encourages relationships among board members and increases their trust in one another.

These are just a few of the ideas that my client organizations have used successfully over the years to make board meetings more productive, engaging, and even inspiring. Board meetings are a fact of nonprofit life; why not show them a little love?

Amy Wishnick

About the Contributor: Amy Wishnick

Amy Wishnick is passionate about organizations.

With skill, sensitivity, and good humor, Amy works with diverse organizations to enhance their management, leadership, and adaptive capacities to be more effective.

Since founding Wishnick & Associates in 2004, she has worked with an array of nonprofit clients on strategic planning, organizational assessments, executive transition and succession planning, board development, and more.

Wishnick & Associates works successfully with nonprofit organizations of all sizes and budgets. Clients include human services agencies, arts, cultural, education, workforce, and community development organizations, associations, religious organizations, and foundations.

Amy began her career in Washington, DC at the National Endowment for the Humanities where she managed a portfolio of research grants to libraries and archives. Upon returning to Chicago, she was the recruiting coordinator at Mayer Brown & Platt, an international law firm. There she managed all recruiting from law schools and lateral hiring. She consulted with the branch offices to set up their recruiting programs as the firm expanded.

Immediately prior to starting Wishnick & Associates, Amy spent seven years at CMC Consultants, a boutique executive search firm. There she consulted with nonprofits, foundations, higher education institutions, financial services organizations, law firms, trading firms, family offices, and manufacturing companies.

Amy has served on and chaired numerous nonprofit boards. She currently is on the KAM Isaiah Israel Foundation board, which oversees the synagogue’s endowment, and she chaired the rabbinic transition committee in 2013 to 2014.

From 1993 to 1995, Amy had the unique opportunity to serve on the United States Defense Department Advisory Committee on Women in the Services, a committee of civilian volunteers appointed to advise the Secretary of Defense. As a member of the executive committee, Amy designed and implemented a training program for new committee members on how to conduct domestic military installation site visits to gain deeper understanding of career opportunities, forces utilization, and quality-of-life issues for women. She also served as the primary author of two reports for the Secretary of Defense highlighting findings and making recommendations from the executive committee’s overseas trips to military installations in Europe (1994) and Asia (1995).

Amy was president of the Association of Consultants to Nonprofits from July 2009 to June 2011. She joined the organization in 2004 and was a member of the board from 2006 to 2012. She coauthored the association’s 2013 publication, Nonprofit Leader’s Guide to Hiring and Engaging Consultants.

She is also an advisor member of Forefront (formerly Donors Forum).

Amy is a member of the Axelson Center for Nonprofit Management Advisory Committee. She teaches strategic planning at Axelson’s annual BootCamp for New Nonprofit CEOs.

In addition, Amy serves on the selection committee for the Alford-Axelson Awards for Managerial Excellence.

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