Time in meetings is some of the most valuable time there is. Think about it. Each person participating in the meeting is spending time that has a monetary value; the more people involved in the meeting, the more valuable that meeting time is. Even though nonprofit board members are unpaid, their time is worth money to them, and their time being well spent by the nonprofit adds to each member’s overall productivity (and to the nonprofit's credibility). This makes board meetings some of the most precious meetings of all. So, making meeting time as efficient and productive as possible should be an obvious goal for all nonprofits. How to get there isn't always so obvious.
To help make highly productive meetings attainable, one of the key things to focus on is good preparation. Developing consistent procedure for meeting preparation and then following it is a simple yet highly effective way to get greater results from meetings. And this also means being able to have fewer of them!
At the heart of preparation is the meeting agenda. It is the tool that both reflects the forethought that went into the meeting and acts to maintain the meeting’s focus in real time. The following steps are a guide for how to develop an agenda for board meetings, but these steps can be applied to any meeting.
1. Scan all of the issues currently facing the organization (this may necessitate conferring with the officers, major committee chairs
and executive staff members). This scan should be jointly done by the CEO and the board chair since this pair represents the entire view of the organization – the board chair has the more macro view and the CEO has the more micro or day-to-day view. Another benefit of this pairing is that the board chair can support the CEO in bringing issues appropriate to the purview of the board – framing the right topics for the meeting participants at the right level of deliberation is key to highly productive meetings.
2. Decide what the priority issues are (matters of financial or legal concern are always top priorities) and what order of discussing them makes the most sense. For instance, financial condition has an impact on most decisions, so the board having an up-to-date understanding of this as a precursor to other discussions is helpful. Sequencing agenda items is as important as identifying the items themselves.
3. Decide what action is needed on each issue from the board. For example, brainstorming, feedback from a review, evaluation, delegation, decision (specify what). Note this action on the agenda with each item so as to prepare the board for what is needed from them and to assess how much time each item will require.
4. Determine the length of time needed for each item and its desired board action. When the times are added, they shouldn’t exceed approximately 90 minutes for a regular board meeting. Meetings that routinely go much longer than this will need breaks and perhaps different formats to ensure participant productivity. If the agenda item times add to more than 90 minutes, consider postponement of some topics and/or reframing what the board will accomplish on the item at the meeting. The meeting facilitator (in the case of board meetings, this is the board chair or president) uses the agenda times to maintain the meeting’s momentum.
5. For each agenda item identify a presenter or “lead.” This is the person who knows the most about the topic and will present the issue to the group. The more often this can be a member of the board as opposed to a staff person, the better. Other knowledgeable parties (board or staff) can always add information as part of the discussion. Each item’s lead is also noted on the agenda, and of course, the agenda item lead is informed well in advance of their role in the meeting so s/he may prepare.
6. Consider what background materials will be useful to prepare board members in advance of the meeting. At minimum, board meeting prework materials will include the set of previous meeting’s minutes, the month’s financial statements and brief reports from the executive director and any current committees. But consider other documents or materials specific to each agenda topic (for example, a schematic, budget and model for discussing capital campaign planning).
7. Collect these materials and develop any needed instruction for what is expected of the board in its prework (e.g., if there are documents to read, what specifically is the board reading for?) Distribute the prework materials with the agenda about a week in advance of the meeting (allow more time if prework is more complex).
Remember, preparation is what makes the difference between an efficient, productive meeting and one that wears everyone out and feels like a waste of time. Following these simple steps when preparing for your meetings is guaranteed to increase its productivity.
Nonprofit-KnowHow covers how to make board and other meetings the most productive time, greatly reducing the number of meetings needed!