About Board Meetings

Meetings Are for Decisions

Board meetings are for making decisions: decisions about policy, decisions about the overall operation of the Society, decisions which affect the Society as a whole.

For the most effective use of board meeting time, limit the agenda to decision-making items, sometimes called action items, and delegate programmatic decisions to appropriate committees and task forces or to staff.

Smaller organizations tend to use board meetings for long exploratory discussions and informational reports.

Why?

  • Because the organization may not know better.
  • Because the board has not set strategic goals to manage to, and all decisions look equally important.
  • Because the members think board meetings have to fill a certain amount of time whether there are important decisions to be made or not.
  • Because there are not enough other ways for people to communicate and work together in the organization.
  • Because in small organizations, the tendency is for the board to make all decisions, rather than delegating programmatic decisions. The technical term for this practice is micro-managing.

The effect?

  • Major strategic decisions and policy decisions may be overlooked.
  • The board may find it is difficult to keep volunteers and staff, since the board is second-guessing their decisions instead of delegating programmatic decisions.
  • The smallness of the organization is self-reinforcing. By focusing on the wrong things in the board meetings, the organization is unable to do what it takes to grow.

How to Focus on Making Decisions

Some ways boards can help improve their ability to focus on making decisions:

  • Have an agenda that stresses policy and strategic decisions. Stick to the agenda.
  • Distribute or learn about background information before the meeting. This includes reports such as committee reports.
  • Proposals for policy decisions and actions are distributed in advance of the meeting, unless the matter is trivial, it’s easy to get the wording well crafted, and the board can quickly come to consensus.

Proposals for Policy Decisions

Proposals for policy decisions or other actions should be submitted in advance of the meeting, then sent out to members also in advance. This is done as a general practice, with exceptions if the matter is trivial, it’s easy to get the wording well crafted in a group meeting, and the board can quickly come to consensus.

When board members have proposals in advance, they can seek out further information, discuss the matters among themselves, craft wording of motions carefully without spending valuable meeting time doing so, and try to build consensus outside the meeting. Board members can “do their homework.”

Proposals can also be presented at one board meeting, then board members are expected to discuss the proposal with each other and to do any background reading or careful thought between meetings, and then finalize the decision at the next meeting.

If a proposal comes up in a board meeting, and the board is unable to quickly both word the proposal accurately and come to a consensus, it should be referred to the next meeting with responsibility assigned for getting the wording done accurately.

If a policy or proposal is urgent, and it’s difficult to get consensus on the wording, consider taking a break in the meeting and having a subgroup representing the different perspectives assigned to write up a consensus proposal or, if that’s not possible, alternate proposals.

Reports to the Board – Activity Reports

Activity reports — from staff, committees, task forces, officers, etc. — are important to the Board when they contain information that tells the board members

  • What actions the group or individual is taking and plans to take
  • If there are specific decisions the Board is asked to make — a policy decision, a proposal, etc.
  • What effects on the Society are resulting from the group or individual’s actions
  • What challenges and opportunities are in sight

The Board may be asked to make a policy decision or approve a proposal as part of the report, or policy decisions or proposals may be initiated by board members on review of the report.

  • The president includes the item on the board agenda or relies on it coming up in “new business” if there is time
  • If a board member initiates a policy decision or proposal, that board member distributes it in writing to the rest of the board in advance of the meeting
  • Board members think about and discuss the issues in advance of the Board meeting

What do board members consider in thinking about whether the Board needs to initiate action based on a report?

  • Is the work being done well — with sufficient quality and effectiveness?
  • Is the right work being done? Are the actions relevant and important to the Society’s overall mission, goals, or objectives?
  • Does the board need to take corrective action?
  • What level of formality is needed if feedback or action is needed?
  • Is the matter important for the board to review, or would the board be micro-managing?

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