Is your boardroom better described as a bored room? How bad is it? If you have trouble convening a quorum, you have a house on fire. Even if directors show up for meetings, you probably still have room for improvement: Have they worked between meetings? Do they come prepared? Do they stare into space? Do two or three board members never do anything? Experts suggest three ways to increase the engagement of your board members in meetings: implementing high-touch onboarding, making meetings focused and forging solid connections outside the meeting.
When a new member joins the board, she should get a clear view of the expectations of board members — as well as frequent contact that makes her feel like a part of the team. The following practices send those messages loud and clear:
First, use name tags at meetings so that new board members don’t avoid conversation because they don’t know names. The National Council of Nonprofits strongly recommends this low-cost, high-impact practice. If you remember the disorientation you felt when you were new, you can imagine how much this gesture would mean to you; you would not have to suffer through six months of connecting context clues to connect names with faces.
Second, include a bio of all the board members in board orientation materials. Only six degrees of separation stand between us all. Most often, though, we never discover those shared experiences that make us feel closer to other people. Reading bios of the other board members, a rookie can spot those connections instantly.
Third, make new concepts, as well as new faces, familiar. The National Council of Nonprofits recommends helping new board members get “up to speed” by sharing minutes from the prior year’s board meetings. Sitting down with his board buddy, a new member can ask questions about strange new terminology, especially acronyms. We’ve all been there: Past minutes casually mention “DR” and “HBCUs.” You have no idea that “DR” refers to a sister city in the Dominican Republic, or that “HBCUs” are historically black colleges and universities. It’s embarrassing for proud professionals to ask such basic questions; an arranged discussion can clear the air.
Municipal meetings often evoke images of boredom interrupted by conflict. Each meeting can feel like an insufferable two hours hearing neighbors vent and getting no business done whatsoever. They don’t have to be. It’s up to the board chair to consciously steer meetings so they stay on point and get things done. Six best practices can make board meetings dynamic and productive:
Paperless meetings can literally keep everybody’s eyeballs pointing in the same direction. A designee can find a needed document on the electronic board portal and project it on the screen at the front of the room. He can even find it quickly, as good board portals provide archives that can store historical records, relevant legislation, maps and all other salient literature. Best of all, they make all those records searchable across files by keyword.
Board portal software makes it possible to do group editing outside of meetings without losing track of who-said-what-when. Each board member can access a shared document on the portal. She can take her time marking it up with suggestions. When she’s done, the version that everybody sees on the portal instantaneously refreshes to reflect those comments — which it also color-codes to identify the commenter.
Connections Outside the Meeting
Perhaps you’ve sat through board meetings in which people make constant references to key personnel whom you’ve never met or to code-named projects that you can’t even visualize. Forging connections between meetings fills in those gaps and breeds group bonding. New York City has board members make program site visits, where they can see the work being done and meet key players.
Purely recreational connections also bind the team together. The chair should host occasional parties. And members should support each other. One non-profit board member in Amherst, MA, was astonished to see most of her friends from that board arriving at her new business launch event.
These simple steps set boards on fire. Trust, respect and passion radiate through board meetings where once people nearly fell asleep. That enthusiasm is the intangible asset without which no board can thrive. Tending that fire is your most important job.
Checco, Larry, “Is Your Mission Getting Creepy?” Dec 2, 2010 at www.GuideStar.org
Edgington, Nell, “Three Questions to Get Your Nonprofit Board Engaged,” Social Velocity April 7, 2014 at www.socialvelocity.net
Hoffman, Bill, “How to Engage Your Board — and Keep Them That Way,” at www.GuideStar.org February 2013
Masaoka, Jan, “What to Do with Board Members Who Don’t Do Anything,” at www.blueavocado.org
National Council of Nonprofits, “Board Engagement” at
New York City Nonprofits, “Board Engagement: Best Practices,” at www1.nyc.gov/site/nonprofits/resources/board-engagement.page