Getting the Most out of Board Meetings by Kimberly Witherspoon


Getting the Most Out of Nonprofit Board MeetingsWhen Board members gather, what are ostensibly shared interests and goals may in fact consist of different or divergent underlying priorities making it difficult to reach consensus.  Here is a short list of proven tools to overcome differences and successfully accomplish the goals that will further the interests of your Board

  • The Board Chair Should Firmly Establish a Collaborative Setting.  The Chair should remind the members that their joint purpose is to oversee and improve the organization, and that all members are there for that reason.  If the session issue/issues are anticipated to be particularly contentious, consider having a neutral facilitator present.
  • Establish an Agenda prior to the Meeting and Provide it to all Members.  All agenda items should be listed along with an estimated time limit to be spent on each item.  Prior to finalizing the agenda, provide a draft to key members, asking for their input as to whether the agenda items are appropriate, whether enough time is allotted to each item for discussion, and whether an important or legitimate item has been omitted. Ideally, once finalized, follow the agenda.  Modification can be appropriate if it meets with the agreement of the participants.  An agenda provides a roadmap, which serves to keep a meeting on track and therefore avoid unnecessary diversions or time wasting.  An agenda should always be seen as a workable plan to ensure the productivity of the meeting.
  • Keep to the Agenda.  “War stories” can be tempting, but they are not productive.  Kindly remind the participants of the importance of the agenda, the time constraints, and the meeting’s purpose in order to “stay on track”.
  • Clarify Unclear Statements.  Ask the speaker in question to re-state their position, so all members can benefit from the discussion.  The meeting Chair should then ask if anyone has questions to ensure that all have a clear understanding of the issue on the table.  After all, Boards exist to make important and informed decisions, so it is critical that each member fully understands the positions of other members.
  • Periodically Summarize the Meeting’s Progress.  This practice is critical to ensure that all members remain on track.
  • Seek out “Quiet” Members and ask for their input during the Meeting.  Perhaps they agree with the current discussion, but often they do not – and it is unproductive and time consuming to discover their (often valuable) reservations at the end of a meeting when more vocal members believe a resolution has been reached, only to then have the more reticent members voice their reservations.
  • When Issues become Contentious, the Board Leader should Remind Members of their Purpose. Useful tools here are reminding members of ground rules (and enforcing them), taking a short break, pointing out that the organization is relying on them to have their best interests at heart, and reminding members of successful past accomplishments that often required patience and teamwork.
  • Identify and Attempt to solve any Apparent Stumbling Blocks to the meeting’s Success.  Diplomatically addressing problems often restores order and allows the discussion to proceed in an effective manner.   If the problem is an individual or block of individuals, be cordial but firm, and try to discern the conflict.  This may not be comfortable, but it will maintain the integrity and important goals of the meeting.
  • Conduct an Assessment at the End of Each Board Meeting. Ask whether all the agenda items were addressed.   Do any agenda items require more discussion or information gathering?  Were new topics raised that need to be addressed in future meetings?
  • Make an Effort for Closure.  Often members think they are in agreement, yet issues remain.  Use clear and concise language to memorialize a Board decision.  Useful methods for doing so include asking members to sharpen language of a Board decision, polling the members, and most critically, writing the decision word-for-word on a white board or in the minutes.  These or other methods ensure there is no confusion should there ever be a question about the outcome of the meeting.

Making board meetings as productive as possible and ensuring everyone’s voice is heard will help keep board members engaged in the long-term success of the organization.

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About the Author: Kimberly A. Witherspoon is an attorney practicing in Little Rock, Arkansas.  She has practiced on the litigation side for over 14 years.  She is currently completing a conflict mediation/negotiation graduate school program at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

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