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No Joke, Board Meetings Can be Terrible

It’s Sunday night. You’re in bed taking a BuzzFeed quiz that will “Guess Your Secret Talent Based on Your Ice Cream Preference” --why yes, I do have an amazing memory; thank you! --when you decide to check your calendar to see what’s coming up in the week ahead. Then you see it. Tuesday. 6pm. Board meeting. (Is it the third Tuesday of the month already?! So much for that “amazing memory,” BuzzFeed…)

You lie awake the rest of the night hoping Tuesday will never come.

“Dread” is an emotion all-too commonly associated with non-profit board meetings. And while each board is as different as the organizations that they serve, the “board meeting experience” is often ubiquitous. We all like to point fingers at everyone else in the room, but we must also remember the old adage: “when you point your finger at someone, there are three more pointing back at you.” It’s time for some introspection, my friend. You might be part of the problem.

How do you know? Here are some of the bad behaviors that make board meetings tough to take.  

1. You don’t read.

Remember in junior high English class when you didn’t read To Kill a Mockingbird and hoped Mrs. Gunderson wouldn’t notice you if you just slunk down in your chair and hid behind the know-it-all in the third row who always had her hand up? Guess what? Mrs. G always knew when you hadn’t done the reading. (To be fair, your answer about how “that mockingbird really died a horrible death,” probably gave you away…)

You know who else knows you didn’t do the reading? The facilitator and other board members in the meeting. Yes, board packets can be dense and a bit dry, but they provide you with information vital to helping you understand the intricacies of an organization and be an effective member of the team. Do your homework. Be prepared. (Just like Mrs. G always said.)

PRO-TIP: Don’t do your reading late at night right before bed. Even if you manage to stay awake, you still aren’t likely to retain much of the information.

FACILITATORS: No one wants to read the “War and Peace” of Board packets. Give your board the SparkNotes version.

2. You make the facilitator do all the work.

In school you loved a group project. Was it the excitement of camaraderie? The collaborative “meeting of minds,” unified in the act of creating a single great presentation? Um, no. It was because you had Jenny Finkle in your group (you remember, the know-it-all in the third row who always had her hand up in English class). Everyone knew that Jenny couldn’t handle getting less than an A on anything and thus would micro-manage the whole project, doing all of it herself and leaving poor you to binge watch recorded episodes of 90210 on your VCR. You may have gotten an A thanks to Jenny, but you didn’t learn a damn thing about the Industrial Revolution, and you failed the ensuing History test as a result (too bad the test wasn’t on the complicated love lives of the students at West Beverly High…)

If, as a board member, you’re letting the ED create the agenda, write the reports, facilitate the meeting, and ask and answer all the questions, you’re not doing your job as a fiduciary. This is your meeting for your benefit. It may seem nice not have to do any work, but consequently, you’re going to fail the test. And “the test,” in this case, is the organization and the community it serves.

PRO-TIP:  Even if you have a fantastic ED whom you love and trust, they actually benefit from your scrutiny and critical thinking about the organization’s work. Sharing your personal vision for the organization will help inspire and inform the overall vision.

FACILITATORS: Don’t micro-manage the meetings. It’s important to be prepared but also to be open to, and encouraging of, the thoughts and opinions of those brought on specifically to share them.

3. You don’t participate.

We’ve noticed that our kids get “participation trophies” for, well, everything. As a society, we congratulate children for simply showing up. “You created an unrecognizable blob out of clay in art! Here’s a certificate!” “You wore your glove on your head and ate grass at every t-ball game! Here’s a trophy!” As adults, however, showing up isn’t the same as “showing up,” and no one is going to reward you for simply being present.

If you’re on a board, your entire purpose is to engage and be an active participant in meetings. You were brought on to the board because you bring time, talent and fundraising that the organization finds valuable. If you’re not going to share your insights and expertise, there might as well be a cardboard cut-out of you sitting in your chair. At least it won’t eat the last donut.

PRO-TIP: If you’re shy or nervous about engaging, have 3 questions written in advance that you plan to ask in the meeting. Sometimes, just having that extra preparation gives you the confidence to speak up.

FACILITATORS: Provide donuts! (or some other sustenance to keep people awake and energized.) Remember, they’re volunteers; the least you can do is compensate them with food!

4. You talk too much.

Thomas Jefferson once mused, "The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do." This is good advice in the Twitterverse, where expression must be condensed to 280 characters, but it’s also sage wisdom for communication in an era where time is the most valuable commodity. The skill of “getting to the point quickly” can't be overstated, partly because it’s hard to be both clear and concise. (This is undoubtedly why Twitter doubled their original 140-character count.)

Being strategic about when, what, and how much you say in a meeting is critical to your effectiveness as a board member. You may have the best ideas, but if they aren't communicated well, they won't be received or retained.

PRO-TIP: Be self-aware. How much of the meeting are you spending talking vs. listening? Yes, your ideas are valuable, but so are others. Yield the floor.

FACILITATORS: Setting ground rules for meetings and sticking to them is a good way to mitigate usurpers.

5. You’re too negative.

Spend any time looking at the news these days and it’s not hard to see why depression is on the rise in the US. Drama and trauma sell, but all that negativity can weigh on one’s psyche. The good news? Avoiding bad news is as easy as staying off devices and social media. However, avoiding negative people is harder.

If you find yourself in board meetings constantly raising complaints, shooting down ideas, laying blaming and deflecting responsibility, newsflash: you’re part of the problem.

PRO-TIP: Identifying challenges is important, but coming up with solutions is how meaningful change evolves. Focus your efforts on what you can do instead of harping on what you can’t.

FACILITATORS: “Validate and pivot.” Acknowledge the issue, then bring the focus back to the agenda or topic at hand.

6. You question everything.

Growing up, your teachers always told you, “there’s no such thing as a stupid question.” That’s a lie. There are lots of dumb questions. (In fact, your teacher probably just told you that to make you feel better about asking one.) But you know what is true? It’s possible to ask too many questions.

There is a distinct difference between bringing up pointed, critical queries that require a board and an ED to evaluate important decisions, versus questioning every single decision or dissecting every angle of every point of view. Instead of playing devil’s advocate all the time, try just being an advocate.

PRO-TIP: Pick your battles. Decide which concerns are the most critical to air and drop the rest.

FACILITATORS: To mitigate a general abundance of inquiries, consider making space in your agenda for questions. But if you know who your “grand inquisitors” are, try having a private, candid conversation with them in advance.

7. You miss the big picture.

Admit it. When your cousin asked you to help with her wedding planning, you spent an entire day focused on linen colors. While the subtle difference between egg shell and Navajo white is a subjectively important detail, she still didn’t have a venue yet, so...  If you’re the person on the board who is high-jacking meetings to discuss whether or not the gardener is trimming the hedges correctly or getting into heated debates over how much printer toner is being purchased, you’re missing the forest for the trees.

Your focus should be on the big picture. Avoid asking questions about the minutiae of operations—which is the Executive Director’s purview, and focus instead on whether or not the operation is fulfilling its mission.

PRO-TIP: Think even bigger. Don’t limit your attention to your organization; know your industry. Research shows that board members are often well versed on their organization but know little about the industry in which their companies compete.

FACILITATORS: Set the strategic agenda for the year (Not sure how to best do that? Hire us!!)

Gandhi once said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” I think we all know he was talking about board meetings. Now you know how to get them right.

It’s Retreat Season. Summer isn’t the time to break; it’s the time to kickstart your 2020 planning. Have you booked your board retreat?

Are you looking for new board members who will make your organization (and you board meetings) better? Come to Cause Cupid NYC!

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