Board Meetings

How to Grow an Award Winning Board

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MEETINGS are events at which minutes are kept – and hours are lost! So says the cynic. And not without reason. But this need not be and should not be for properly organized, prepared for and conducted meetings. Meetings can accomplish a great deal, in a remarkably short period of time and everyone will have adequate opportunity to make appropriate contributions.

Three factors are always involved in successful board meetings:

  1. There are strong committees which have a history of bringing their best efforts to every assignment and the board therefore has confidence in the fact that each committee has done its job thoroughly.
  2. All necessary pre-education is provided. Board members are provided in advance with: minutes of all active committees, reports which will bear upon decisions the board must make, minutes of the last board meeting, current financial reports, the executive director’s statistical (“state of the agency”) report, appropriate memoranda and so forth. Board members should be expected to review these materials thoroughly in advance of the meeting.
  3. There is good, appropriate leadership from the chair. This is not to recommend authoritarian heavy-handedness, but it is to remind those who chair board meetings of their obligation to keep things moving and when wheels begin to spin, it is the chair who must get the meeting back on track.

In the case of committee meetings, numbers two and three above apply with equal force, but to these should be added the necessity of appropriate staff support, assuming that the agency has staff available for this purpose.

How an agenda is planned also plays a vital role. Typically, the agenda for a board meeting should be planned jointly by the executive director and the board president. Committee meeting agenda should be planned by the committee chair with the senior staff person serving the committee.

In developing the agenda for a board meeting, it is the president’s responsibility to have been in touch with each committee chair beforehand in order to know each committee’s needs at the meeting. Committees having only progress to report should do so by way of their minutes circulated to board members with the call to the meeting. When a committee has a recommendation requiring board action – or when a committee wishes to use the full board as a forum – then, if the committee’s minutes do not adequately pre-educate the board as to the committee’s needs, a brief memorandum by the committee chair should also be sent out to the board in order to pre-educate board members as to what they will be dealing with at the meeting.

It is important in organizing any agenda to pay attention to group dynamics. For example, never begin a meeting with an issue known to be potentially controversial. The best of boards or committees can have a heated discussion on occasion and it is best not to begin any meeting on such a footing. Conversely, never end a meeting with an issue known to be potentially controversial. Whenever possible, meetings ought to end in discussions of matters where there is likely to be unanimity. Let the participants depart feeling good about the organization. And if there is more than one controversial issue to be dealt with, all of these should be in the central part of the agenda with each separated by one or two issues of lesser import to permit the participants to catch their breath before moving once more into deeper waters.

MAKING DECISIONS … that’s what it is all about. Decisions are the end product of all board activity. But too many boards make their decisions on a sort of ad hoc basis and fail to make use of helpful techniques that are available. There are eight steps that, properly followed, will usually lead to better decisions.

Before we go through these eight steps, however, we should note the four prerequisites which must be in place before a board can expect to make sound decisions routinely: 1) The board must be made up of people who are completely aware of – and are carrying out – the board’s full role and responsibilities. 2) There must be a year round leadership development activity which will provide a supply of such people over the years. 3) The board must be served by a family of well thought out committees. 4) The board’s meetings must be properly prepared for, properly conducted, and the participants must live up to their responsibilities both to the objectives of the meeting as well as to each other.

This said, we can now turn to the eight steps in sound decision making.

  1. Define the issue. Don’t attempt to begin developing solutions until the issue and all of its facets are completely defined. To borrow some computer jargon, “Garbage In – Garbage Out!” The lack of adequate issue definition will lead inevitably to a poor decision.
  2. Referral to a committee – at least for the more complex issues. A board is typically too large to deal in the detail of every issue it must-decide upon.
  3. Information gathering in the committee – e.g. brainstorming, hearing experts, developing questionnaires, and so forth. Important – permit no criticism of any idea, however wild, at this early stage. To criticize while gathering data will inevitably turn off the flow of good, creative ideas.
  4. Evaluate your data. Criticism is now suitable. Weed out the weak alternatives. List out the options that remain. Prioritize where appropriate.
  5. Discuss – debate – decide. Subject the options that remain to rigorous discussion and debate, eventually reaching a decision that at least the majority of committee members can support which will then be recommended to the full board. The goal is to achieve consensus among the committee members, but consensus on some issues is not always possible. While consensus is always a desirable goal, do not let the quest for consensus lead to a watered down, inadequate decision.
  6. Recommendation to the full board for a final decision. The recommendation should be given to all board members in advance of the upcoming board meeting, in the form of a motion and be accompanied by all relevant data – pro and con. The board will then discuss the motion and make its decision.
  7. Fix the responsibility, set a time frame and follow up to be sure that the decision has been implemented and that the desired effect was achieved.
  8. Evaluate the decision – at least the big ones. The committee that made the recommendation at Step 6 should determine when an appropriate time to evaluate the decision would be and then do so. The results of this evaluation should be reported to the board together with any possible recommendations for improvement if the implementation is ongoing in nature.

Approaching your board’s decision making on a more formalized, structured basis will provide a reasonable degree of assurance that you are probably covering most – if not all – of the bases. This will lead to better decisions and thus to better service for those whom your organization serves.

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