Nonprofit board meetings need planning, discipline, reflection

By Regenia Bailey / Guest Editorial

Nonprofit organizations often struggle with meeting attendance, complaints about the length of board meetings and dysfunctional member behavior and participation during meetings. And yet, much of the work of the nonprofit board occurs in its meetings. Therefore, it’s important to ensure that meetings make good use of the time and skills of the board members to ensure that the organization is getting its work done.


An effective meeting takes a little planning

First, determine the goal for the meeting. Too often, we assemble our meeting agendas quickly and fill them with reports and routine information that has little apparent connection to the organization’s overall strategy or intended impact. Disconnecting meeting agendas from the strategic work of the organization hampers organizational progress and can contribute to board member disengagement.

Develop meeting goals by thinking about what the board needs to address or discuss at this meeting to make a 12th (or a 10th or a fourth — depending upon how often the board meets) of its progress toward its annual objectives.

Next, have a written meeting agenda. It’s not enough to have a goal in mind for the meeting: the activities and objectives for the meeting should be written into a meeting agenda. Many organizations have a standard meeting agenda or structure. This can be a helpful planning tool as long as it is tailored to the goals and activities of each meeting.

How board meeting agendas are developed varies somewhat from organization to organization. Ideally, the board president or chair should play an active role in developing the agenda. Some organizations include broader board participation in agenda planning. However it is approached, it should be a manageable process that results in a coherent, manageable agenda linked to the organization’s broader goals.

Send the agenda and supporting meeting information to board members in advance. Providing the meeting agenda and materials in advance allows board members time to prepare for the meeting and their roles in it. It also provides common ground for discussion and decision-making. Reports can be provided in the meeting packet with the expectation that only report highlights or questions will be covered at the meeting.


An effective meeting takes a little discipline

At the meeting, follow the agenda. This can be challenging, particularly for organizations in the midst of dynamic change, but it helps ensure that the meeting remains focused. It’s helpful to have a protocol for addressing items that aren’t on the agenda. If it’s a pressing item, some boards may call a special meeting. Other items can simply wait for discussion until the next meeting. Whatever the system is, it’s important that all board members know the rules for getting an item placed on a board meeting agenda.

Keep things moving and productive. The chair has the primary responsibility to keep the meeting on track, but this is also a shared responsibility among board members. Often it involves members monitoring themselves and refraining from lengthy remarks or side conversations with board colleagues.

Productive meetings are not without constructive conflict. It’s part of a board member’s duty to bring questions and concerns about organizational issues to the full board for discussion. One of the benefits of a diverse board is the opportunity to discuss different perspectives or opinions on an issue. These types of discussions have the greatest potential to move the organization forward.

Start and end meetings on time. Timeliness norms vary from organization to organization. That said, adhering to the agreed-upon schedule is a way of showing respect for board members and the organization. Once again, the chair has the primary responsibility to ensure that the meeting is convened and adjourned on time, but all board members have the responsibility to arrive on time and stay and participate until the meeting adjourns.

Refrain from the ‘meetings after the meeting.’ Board meeting replays or intense follow-up issue discussions in the parking lot after the meeting are often indicators that the deliberations around the board table were incomplete in some way. They may mean that board members were not adequately prepared to discuss the item when it was presented in the meeting. They may be indicators that board members withheld comments during the board meeting. They also could indicate board divisiveness. Whatever the reason, informal ‘meetings after the meeting’ can be disruptive to the organization if they get in the way of the board presenting a united stance regarding its decisions on issues.


An effective meeting takes a little reflection

Finally, the board should evaluate its meetings periodically. It can use an assessment tool or simply have a short discussion among members about what’s working well and what areas need improvement. Given that the board does much of its work in its meetings, it makes sense to ensure that meetings are making the best possible use of board members’ time and skills.


Regenia Bailey is a consultant and coach to nonprofits and small businesses at her firm, the Bailey Leadership Initiative. She is a former mayor of Iowa City and teaches business courses at Kirkwood Community College. For more information, visit