When Less Is More: Reduce the Number of Board Meetings

-Walt Kaesler

Photo Credit – Walt Kaesler

Many nonprofit organizations have 10-12 board meetings each year. Often these meetings last several hours. It’s an enormous commitment.

Most organizations got into the habit of monthly board meetings with good intent. Board membership is one way to secure adequate volunteers to get the work done. Meeting time becomes important coordination time. Decisions are made by consensus, and shared leadership requires a common vision. It’s important to bring everyone up to the same level of understanding about each issue before decisions get made.

But times change. Coordination is possible without getting everyone into the same room. Moreover, individuals most capable of providing organizational leadership through service on a board are often already very busy, juggling the demands of a successful career and life. Too many meetings, and meetings lacking strategic substance, can be a deterrent. The frequency of the meetings alone limits the number and types of individuals available to join the board. And board members embroiled monthly in operational or project details tend to lose steam or have little energy left for fundraising, one of the board’s most critical roles.

For boards and organizations to thrive, they must transition to getting much of the work and even many of the decisions made in committees. The transition to a committee-based organization is difficult. Just as the founder of an organization must learn to trust the others in leading the organization, board members must learn to trust the work and decisions of their colleagues operating and producing in committees. When board meetings are reserved for governance and strategy, and committee meetings (whether standing committees or project-specific committees) manage details or less strategic decisions, both pack a punch and add more value to the organization. We like to think of it as working smarter – not harder.

Consider two factors when exploring whether you have too many board meetings:

  1. Everything your board does in board meetings is really board business, right?
  2. Of the business that is, what could be more efficiently and effectively delegated to committees and/or to staff?

As few examples might be helpful. When board members pull weeds or provide legal review of conservation easements, they are not acting as board members as much as they are simply acting as volunteers. Once it’s delegated, organizing such work can be pulled out of the board meeting completely. Finalizing the dinner venue for an annual meeting, perhaps with a limit on an approved rental amount, could be efficiently delegated to a single person or small committee. What comes to the board is the report on the selection, and these reports can be accepted efficiently with a consent agenda.

As an exercise, examine the last several years’ worth of board agendas for your organization, looking for items which either do not rise to the level of board business or could be delegated. What’s left? Could that remaining board business get done in fewer meetings? Most likely, yes.

For this to work, the delegation of authority (to act on behalf of the board) must be clear and unambiguous. A single person might have the authority to select the annual meeting dinner venue but that same meeting’s agenda might be delegated to a committee. Regardless, the end result is that there is less need to involve the entire board in the work.

Board meetings are absolutely necessary of course – not everything can be done in committee. For example, the approval of land deals should never be delegated to a committee. Governance (long-term vision, policy development, and organizational perpetuity), Management (organizational alignment and policy compliance), Fundraising (assuring the necessary resources to implement the strategic direction), and Celebration (cheerleading after mission wins) are critical responsibilities of all boards that cannot be underestimated.

We’d posit that most boards can complete their work in four meetings annually. One of those meetings should focus on annual planning, including progress on and adaptations to the strategic plan to keep it relevant and empowering. Scheduling and hosting a fifth, longer meeting every third year or so, to revisit Strategic Planning more completely, is also recommended.

Here are several other things to consider:

  • Even if your organization schedules meetings every month, you don’t need to have them. If there isn’t enough (governance, management, fundraising, celebration) substance for a meeting, it can be deferred.
  • Meetings don’t need to be scheduled at regular intervals. For example, depending on board business, events you hold or programs you offer, or your fiscal year calendar, it may be more appropriate to schedule meetings each year in February, April, September, and November, or some other irregular schedule.
  • Board members can help by coming to meetings completely prepared to engage on the subjects at hand. The agenda should be developed in such a way that board members are clear what they are be asked to decide or vote on right from the outset. One possibility is that all motions come to the board meeting as seconded motions out of committee. That way the agenda item is the “question”, and the recommended “answer” is the seconded motion – ready for discussion.
  • Board members can still gather more often than 4 times per year but their gathering does not necessarily constitute a board meeting.

The bottom line – fewer, “tighter” board meetings, focused on purely Board-level business – tend to attract a wider, more diverse pool of potential board members and lead to a more diverse and more productive board.

Let us know what you think about fewer board meetings. What can you do or have you done to help make meetings more efficient?

-David Allen