Steps Towards Creating an Effective Board Meeting

OK, so who has been here – you are either on a board of directors for a non-profit organization, or you are the CEO and you are diving head first into your meeting.  You look down at the agenda and it is chock full of discussion items for each committee, along with each committee presenting their reports, and finally you see the words “strategic planning brainstorming.”  You wonder if this meeting is going to ever going to end…

Many organizations struggle with being able to implement steps towards making their board meetings effective.  Does every committee need to run down their laundry list of items?  Is there any element of board development training at the meeting?  How about fundraising?  Does everyone suddenly need to leave early just as the development committee is about to speak (because they are last on the agenda)? These are some commonalities that many boards face.  Maybe this is just how that particular board has been run, and people are afraid to rock the boat.  Maybe the committees are not effectively managing their workloads or feel they need the entire boards input in every decision; no matter how small it is.  The good news, there is hope!

The board chair and CEO of the organization are they key players in running an effective board meeting.  So logically, this begs the question: are these two people on the same page?  Having the board chair and the CEO go into a board meeting with two different agendas can instantly cause friction in how the meeting is run.  So it is key that they are on the same page even before pen is put to paper for drafting the agenda.


Communication between the board chair and the CEO is a vital part of the process.  Typically, in small to medium sized organization, the CEO is the touch point or liaison between the staff of the organization and the board as a whole.  They also tend to fall into the role of being the liaison between the board committees and the board chair; they are the keeper of all the knowledge. But it doesn’t have to be that way.  Having regular meetings where the committee chairs are present along with the board officers and the CEO can ensure that everyone is on the same page.  Many times there is information that is relevant to more than one committee (e.g. fundraising and finance), and having these regular meetings can ensure that each committee is aware of the bigger picture, can guide the direction of focus for each respective committee.  This will allow for more productive discussion and decision making at the board meeting, and not relying on one person alone to filter the information.

Committee Work:

Having served on the Session of my church for several years, our very wise Clerk of Session (equivalent to the Secretary role of a board) would frequently say “that should be discussed in the committee” when a topic came up that did not warrant the time at the board meeting.  So, are the committees of your board working effectively?  Are they doing the work at the committee level and then bringing a recommendation to the board for a decision on a matter, or does the committee want to have, what should be a committee discussion, at the board meeting? Ensuring the committee chairs are individuals who are comfortable with developing their own respective agendas that focus on the goals at hand (typically ones that reflect goals within the organization’s strategic plan), and facilitating discussions with the end goal of delivering a recommendation to the board, is an important skill to possess.  If the committee chair is wishy-washy, or not comfortable guiding the discussion towards a unified decision, perhaps that person is best served participating on the committee instead of leading a committee.  Ultimately, the time at the board meeting is valuable real estate. It should be used extremely wisely, and used for matters that need the entire board’s approval or input.  A sign of a productive committee is delivering potential motions to the agenda along with a detailed committee report; not having a bullet point stating “committee update.”

Consent Agenda:

Many times we are asked to sit in on a board meeting so we can assist the organization in making that time more effective.  Often times we are handed a copy of the agenda and see a litany of items that the committees are going to discuss which really do not need to take up that amount of time.  Things like, approval of prior meeting minutes, ratification of electronic votes, executive committee action items, etc.  The agenda is also clogged with every committee giving an update and laying out discussion items, in addition to motions (which are not on the agenda for the board to be aware of and consider ahead of time), and a lot of unnecessary fluff.  Moving towards a consent agenda format is an excellent way to help streamline efforts and increase efficiency.  The Board Effect gives a great outline of the consent agenda process and what it really is and how it works. 

The Docket:

Typically within most bylaws, there is a timeframe as to when the board must be presented with information prior to a board meeting.  This is usually referred to as “the docket.”  The docket contains items all the items for the upcoming meeting that are relevant to business at hand.  Things you typically see are: the agenda, prior meeting minutes up for approval, committee reports with rationale to proposed motions, financial documentation, fundraising reports, strategic planning initiatives or plan updates, as well as any peripheral data that may be used to support action items at the board meeting.  Dockets can be short, medium, or long.  Developing a consistent process and format to your docket will increase effectiveness of the meeting.  When the board members know when due dates are for submitting all relevant documentation, when the full docket will be distributed, and finally the order of the docket, it establishes order.  Board members will know where to reference committee reports, as well as what will be expected of them to have reviewed prior to the meeting so they can come prepared with aforementioned knowledge of a potential motion they will be voting on.  If you currently do not have this type of process, consider taking steps towards a uniform docket and you will see results.

These are just some suggestions on how to increase the effectiveness of your board meetings.  Not all boards are created equal, nor do they all function the same.  But, many boards in small and medium sized organizations consist of individuals who volunteer their time and typically serve in multiple capacities, and providing them with tools and processes to help them be more effective will allow the board to conduct necessary business. 

Feel like you need someone to help you out with your board meetings? Contact Harpeth Consultant Advisory Group to discuss your needs and how we can help.