3 Ways To Resolve Board Participation Challenges

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By Mike Burns

I regularly hear from nonprofit execs about how most of their board members are basically just “bumps on a log” or “don’t pull their own weight.” “Members just sit through meetings, that is, those who attend,” they say. I will explore the factors that can affect and strategies that can address challenges to fully engaging board members.

Before addressing these common complaints from execs, I feel obligated to remind execs that neither the board nor the nonprofit is “theirs.” Via state and federal governments, nonprofits are given a right to perform non-taxable activities by the public. The board is the nonprofit’s caretaker and does its work on behalf of the public. Nonprofit execs have the task of understanding and executing how best to achieve the mission as defined by the board.

Funny enough, acknowledging this does not dismiss the reality that unless directly asked for their opinion, many board members say very little, if anything, during a board meeting. Often it is generally a few members who manage to fill the room with their voices, leaving the rest to minimally nod and, when the time comes, vote on proposals. No, there is no rule that says every board member must have something to say during a board meeting. At the same time, many members are silent partners in the work of the board.

So why do many board members remain silent during meetings given that, for most, meetings are often the main task asked of them, aside from meeting preparation, a committee assignment, giving or getting funds and possibly advocacy or promotion work. All in all, it’s not that much work given that meetings and meeting prep tend to require an average of 30 to 40 hours a year in total.

So, if the principal job is to participate in meetings, not just show up, what challenges thwart full engagement, at least in meetings and what are possible solutions?

Challenge 1: Reporting

Particularly by the executive, reporting consumes a lot of every meeting. When the exec essentially states, “They have everything under control and are making progress,” many members believe there’s little they can contribute. Committee reporting can also take up a lot of time (simply addressed using a consent agenda).

Solution: Set the Tone

The volunteer leadership must care that not all members engage in the work, beginning with meetings. Engagement in meetings can positively lead to engagement in other board opportunities to fully support the work of the nonprofit. By leadership, I am specifically referring to the board chair, as well as the governance committee chair — both of whom set the tone of inclusion and engagement.

Challenge 2: Preparation

Limited prep for meetings can also reduce a desire to demonstrate what an individual may or may not know.

Solution: Improve Agenda Management

The chair also is likely most involved in meeting management and setting the agenda (although I prefer a more inclusive process). Agenda management can ensure that opportunities for conversation and discussion are not lost in the process of learning and understanding matters. The chair can employ an order of items that includes all of the three essential activities of a meeting: fiduciary and strategic oversight, and generative. Mission moments can provide learning, but also create space for mission-specific discussions.

Challenge 3: Culture

The culture of meetings, typically hierarchical and strictly following rules of order, particularly when only a few members are really conversant in these rules can be inhibiting. Also, when more senior board members dominate discussions and regularly demonstrate their experience and knowledge, others with less seniority or experience will be less inclined to share their own perspectives, level of interest and commitment.

Solution: Create Annual Orientations

Effective annual orientations increase familiarity and make for positive working relationships between members, which, in turn, positively affect meeting decision-making. Introductions or check-ins at the beginning of meetings can also positively affect relationships. A buddy system that pairs at minimum two board members, perhaps senior and junior members together, can help ensure that no board member is isolated at any time and can feel confident in the boardroom. And at the conclusion of meetings, 10- to 15-minute executive sessions can help members talk with each other about the results of meetings — again supporting the inclusion of everyone.

At the end of the day, the lack of board member engagement is no accident. Member enthusiasm is first lost and most certainly gained at the business meeting where nothing should be left to chance in the agenda and process to facilitate active discussion that recognizes all members as having value. And while the board chair plays an important role in contributing to this culture, every member is responsible for ensuring inclusion that results in full engagement.

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