The kids are back to school, soccer practice is in full swing, and the days are getting shorter. Fall is upon us, and with the return to routine after a delightful summer reprieve, your non-profit board meetings are once again back in session. Which brings to light the oft-lamented question, just how often should our board be meeting? After all, during a two-month summer reprieve from monthly meetings, the proverbial ship didn’t seem to veer too far off course.
While most corporate bylaws, and state laws, require that an organization’s directors meet at least annually, this leaves a lot of discretion for nonprofits seeking guidance on how often their boards should meet. Meet too often and board meetings become stale, unproductive, and leave board members feeling like they’ve wasted their time. On the other hand, meet too infrequently, and your board becomes disengaged and uninformed; this can leave your organization void of direction and susceptible to mismanagement. Here are a few considerations to help your organization determine how frequently your board should meet.
Create an action calendar to map out key duties and annual goals.
At a baseline, your board needs to meet with sufficient frequency to adequately carry out your basic fiduciary and governance duties. This includes hiring the CEO and monitoring the CEO’s performance, creating a vision and direction for the nonprofit, setting goals and monitoring their progress, developing policies and procedures, ensuring sufficient financial resources, and generally safeguarding the organization and its mission.
An annual board action calendar can help your board ensure that the key governance obligations, as outlined above, are being met and can also serve to keep you focused on your key oversight duties. Items on your action calendar may include:
- Electing directors and officers
- Holding the annual board meeting
- Reviewing your 990 and audit
- Approving your annual budget
- Discussing your Executive Director’s annual work plan or performance review
- Engaging in scheduled reviews of bylaws, policies, and procedures
- Approving the annual board work plan
Then consider what other big items the board needs to tackle this year. Maybe it’s a review of the assumptions behind your strategic plan. Or perhaps you’re in the early stages of a capital campaign or rolling out significant programmatic changes. While many duties and goals are standard, others will change over time. So where quarterly meetings may have once sufficed, the changing needs of your organization may require more or less frequent meetings to stay in step.
Adjust your calendar to your size and season.
Additionally, over the course of a nonprofit’s lifecycle, a board may focus on different areas and emphasize different functions. Nonprofit board functions are often divided into three categories as follows:
- Working: For smaller nonprofits that lack the resources to hire a full-time staff to manage their programs, the board’s role is to plan and manage the organization’s activities.
- Strategic: For well-established organizations, the board’s role is to provide oversight over the organization’s management and finances, as well as shaping and upholding the organization’s mission.
- Fundraising: For many nonprofits, the primary board role is to fundraise.
The need for more or less frequent meetings will vary and change based on both the size and relative maturity of your organization. As needs change, your board may need to revisit how frequently you need to meet to adequately respond to your organization’s changing needs.
Do you have well-functioning committees?
A final consideration in determining how often your board should meet is the function of board committees in relation to carrying out governance responsibilities. Do you have robust committees that meet regularly in-between board meetings? If not, could your organization benefit by having committees take an active role in specific areas of governance? Responsibilities for an audit/financial review, fundraising, executive compensation, and board recruitment are often delegated to committees, freeing up the board to meet less frequently and/or spend their time on matters targeted at improving organizational capacity and mission reach.
Leverage tools and technology to save time and have more effective meetings.
While technology is no substitute for robust debate and deliberation, the thoughtful employment of certain technologies can help boards be more informed and effective. For example, time is frequently wasted at board meetings discussing and approving actions such as previous meeting minutes, monthly financials, and other routine matters. By using a consent agenda, your board can free up a meeting time to focus on the substantive issues facing the organization. While a consent agenda requires thoughtful planning and an investment of time outside of meetings, it can be a great tool to more efficiently carry out basic governance and fiduciary roles. Once you establish a disciplined process, your board will be free to dig deeper into important issues or may even consider meeting less frequently.
Similarly, with recent advances in data and analytic capabilities, nonprofits can use a tailored dashboard to keep board members and staff better informed. Dashboards are a dynamic and visual real-time interface with specified organizational functions that allow for a quick status assessment by board members and staffers alike. They can be used to monitor anything from finances and fundraising, to specific program metrics and staff performance. Boards can use dashboards to quickly get a sense of how well the organization is functioning and alert them to emergent problems. This allows members to quickly zero in on matters that need attention rather than wasting time getting up to speed on the status and issues facing the organization. With the adept use of dashboards, boards are empowered to make more informed decisions and carve out more time at meetings for constructive deliberation and strategic thinking.
Less meeting, more doing!
We know that where directors feel a personal connection to the organization, its staff and volunteers, and its mission and impact in the community, they will be encouraged to take an active rather than passive role in governance and decision-making. But if you are leaning on monthly meetings to build board engagement, you may be missing the mark. Meeting for the sake of meeting will not foster board engagement, regardless of how often you meet.
Instead of using board meetings as your only touchpoint with board members, consider other ways to increase the board’s exposure to the organization and its day-to-day work. This might include an on-site board volunteer workday, quarterly meet and greets with your staff and executive director, or participation as a group in community-sponsored events. These activities can help your board gain a better understanding of the organization and find insight that will help guide decision-making. Moreover, greater exposure to the organization’s programs can give directors a greater sense of engagement with the organization beyond simply approving budgets and documents.
Additionally, with less frequent meetings, you can plan longer sessions with time directed towards creating more meaningful touchpoints and relationships between fellow board members, and with executive staff. This could range from a stand-alone social hour to dedicating meeting time to board training and capacity building. Some boards find a great benefit to having an annual retreat to solidify relationships and set a clear vision for the year ahead.
Finally, while some of the most successful nonprofits have a careful plan for stewarding and growing loyal donors, they often overlook the benefit of stewarding one of their most precious resources, board members. Consider scheduling time for your board president and executive director to meet individually with each board member on an annual basis. By engaging in a more intimate conversation with your board members, you will be positioned to best match their time, talents, and resources to the needs of your non-profit.
Ellis Carter is a nonprofit lawyer with Caritas Law Group, P.C. licensed to practice in Washington and Arizona. Ellis advises nonprofit and socially responsible businesses on corporate, tax, and fundraising regulations nationwide.
Republished with permission from the author.