Board service is often an unseen and thankless job, and the problem of getting trustees more engaged and involved is part of the larger issue of “organizational culture-shift.”
Because listening to reports makes people passive, it is no surprise that board members tend not to speak up. Open-ended questions stimulate conversation. Consider shaking things up by having meetings where there are no reports but only an agenda with good questions. This is what a colleague of mine, Thomas A. McLaughlin, author of “Nonprofit Mergers and Alliances: A Strategic Planning Guide,” calls a shift from a typical board agenda to a strategic board agenda.
The following table highlights the shift he describes:
Typical Board Agenda
- Report of Executive Director: Technology Plan Update
- Finance Committee Report: Analysis of New Program Profitability, Cash Flow report, Proposed Change for Insurance Agency
- Nominating Committee Report: Update on New Candidates
- Program Committee Report: Documentation of Need for New Program
Strategic Board Agenda
- Expand Educational Program to East Side: Documentation of Need (Program Committee), Analysis of Profitability (Finance Committee), Potential Board Member List from East Side (Nominating Committee)
- Increase Profitability: Analysis of Overall Agency Profitability and Proposed Change for Insurance Agency (Finance Committee)
- Development of Information Systems: Discussion of New Technology Plan (Executive Director), Consideration of Capital Investment Needs (Finance Committee)
The repetitive nature of a typical agenda, consisting entirely of reports and updates, is obvious. For a board member seeking to use skills and knowledge to advance the cause, it is depressingly flat. It is hard to know what is important and what is not, plus it does not relate to the strategic goals of an organization. No one has much fun with this type of agenda, and very little is likely to get accomplished.
The Strategic Agenda has two strong advantages over the Typical Agenda. First, it draws board members away from the inherently backward-looking nature of reports and updates and involves them in future-oriented discussions and debate. Unlike the Typical Agenda, which compartmentalizes material, the Strategic Agenda clearly illustrates the link between the items for discussion and strategic goals.
Second, the Strategic Agenda creates a sense of momentum and teamwork toward a common goal. The goals that board members work so hard to identify during a strategic planning retreat show up exactly as crafted on every board meeting agenda. Members know that they will be expected to engage in the dialogue, which prevents passive listening.
The smartest boards I have belonged to met four to six times a year, and the meetings were full-day. Occasionally those boards also had a longer retreat when it was warranted. Staying overnight allows members to focus on tackling long-range planning issues.
Finally, never assume that the board chair must always facilitate the meeting. Facilitation is a learned skill and the chair can ask others to take the lead if they have talent in this area. Again, this is the stuff of culture shift. When you are changing an organizational culture, one ought not to hoist specific changes onto a group until first learning more about its dilemma.
Often an outside consultant can play an important role in such a culture shift, but before you consider bringing one in, learn more about your needs.
What’s been your experience with board engagement? Leave your comments below. Laurence responds to all thoughtful comments.