I have seen it time and again. Many nonprofits require that their board members attend monthly meetings in person. I am also aware that some organizations mandate that board volunteers across the country still attend these meetings in person, even if they have to travel and disrupt their own work and life schedules on a monthly basis. This is a mistake and it is simply not an effective use of time.
Gathering a nonprofit board for formal board meetings is an absolute requirement; however, some organizations believe that in order to be effective, they need to do this on a monthly basis. It’s simply not necessary.
When a nonprofit or social enterprise is in its early start-up stages, it probably makes sense to have board members meet on a monthly basis. Typically, during these times there are likely a handful of volunteers who are doing everything to get their organization up and running. A significant number of nonprofits and social enterprise ventures fail during the first five years, so there is a certain level of intensity that is required to become successful.
There are also times within a mature organization that require a high level of active board activity, such as when there is some sort of crisis or if an organization is in the midst of a major expansion, such as a capital campaign.
However, I have noticed that many organizations keep this particular level of board intensity long after the early years and it actually creates more challenges than it solves. It gives unnecessary pressure to busy board members who have to get themselves to a meeting each month. And, in some instances, it creates a negative culture because there really is no pressing business that requires board involvement, and so board members begin to get involved in the day-to-day management, which is not what they are supposed to be doing.
In the course of my work, I have the opportunity to speak to many executives and volunteers. I like to ask individuals who are involved in social enterprise or nonprofit work what they do, why they do it and what challenges and opportunities they see in their field of work. Everyone has a different story and vision and it’s great to learn about different approaches that people are taking to addressing certain issues.
From time to time, I have come across board members who tell me that while they thoroughly enjoy and are honored to have the volunteer responsibilities they have, they find that they are drained. When I ask them how often their board meets, they usually tell me, monthly. And, in some cases, I have had occasion to speak to board members who travel each month for a two-hour meeting because a nonprofit requires in person board meetings. I have also come across individuals who have told me that they would very much like the opportunity to serve on a specific board, but the board member requirements around board meetings is simply not something they can fulfill.
If your organization has monthly board meetings and requires in-person board participation (especially during this time of unprecedented virtual technology), here are some suggestions to consider:
- Ask board members to attend at least 80 percent of meetings.
- Do not require in-person attendance at every meeting. Encourage it, yes, but do not require it, especially if there is travel involved. Come into the 21st Century and look into easy to use telephone or web conferencing technology such as GoToMeeting.
- Make certain all board members are assigned to a board committee. The work of the board should be done, at first, at the committee level and then presented to the full board once there are decisions and votes to be made based on committee recommendations.
- Consider reducing the number of board sessions to quarterly, including the annual meeting. If that seems to be too few conferences during the course of a calendar year, then consider bi-monthly meetings, but no more.
Reducing the number of board meetings for most organizations, which have them monthly but are not in the start-up phase, in the middle of a crisis or a special campaign will bring more energy and an appropriate level of involvement.
© 2015 Wayne Elsey and Not Your Father’s Charity. All Rights Reserved.