How to create awesome nonprofit board meetings

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Editor's Note: Are your nonprofit meetings unproductive? We partnered with Gord Sheppard for a free webinar on February 25, 2016 that helps you improve all of your meetings. Whether you're a board member, executive director, manager or staff member, you'll want to watch this presentation. Watch the full recording now.

What does the phrase “nonprofit board meeting” make you want to do?

Smile. Because you volunteer for an effective nonprofit board that can easily raise money to get excellent results for clients.

Bite your lip. Because you don’t want to say anything bad about fellow nonprofit board members who said they would get something done after the last meeting and they didn’t.

Scream out loud. Because the current nonprofit board that you are volunteering for is a total waste of your time.

Effective nonprofits approach a board meeting like it’s a business:

  • They define clear goals for each meeting and they connect those goals to their overall strategy.
  • They know how to recruit the right board members and they get rid of anyone who isn't contributing.
  • They hold themselves accountable and they get real results that can be measured.

So how do you want to approach your next nonprofit board meeting? You can start by asking the following questions.

  • Where are we now?
  • Where do we want to go?
  • How are we going to get there?

To help you answer these questions I have put together the following list of suggestions that will help you make your next board meeting even more effective.

Where are we now?

1. Rank the performance of your current nonprofit board meeting.

One of the best ways to rank your current nonprofit board meeting performance is to use the following list to determine a number on a scale of 1-10.

1-4/10 – Low Score. Meeting behaviours include:

  • Low trust
  • Open conflict
  • No agenda
  • People are late
  • Too much talking about personal issues
  • Checking phones during meeting
  • Bad language
  • People don’t follow through on commitments
  • Very little gets done

5-8/10 – Average Score. Meeting behaviours include:

  • Basic level of trust
  • Well organized with a proper agenda
  • Everybody is nice
  • There may be some conflicts but nobody talks about it
  • Output of meeting produces average results

9-10/10 – Outstanding Score. Meeting behaviours include:

  • High level of trust
  • Healthy conflicts that lead to outstanding solutions
  • Confident leader/facilitator
  • Innovative ideas are shared
  • People encourage each other
  • People laugh out loud
  • Everybody contributes (even the ‘Quiet’ people)
  • People can’t wait for the next meeting
  • What happens in these meetings helps the organization rapidly achieve its goals

Once you determine your current score (___/10) then you can move on to the next question.

Where Do We Want To Go?

2. Decide what board meeting performance level you want.

Now that you know your current score, you can use the same list to determine what you want your future nonprofit meeting performance score to be (___/10). Once you determine this you can begin to answer the next question.

How Are We Going To Get There?

There are many ways to improve the performance of your next nonprofit board meeting. Here are a few of my favourites.

3. Some people gotta grow and some people gotta go.

We all understand that having the right people on your team is one of the best ways to succeed. So why do nonprofit boards often struggle with this issue?

Desperation. They are often so desperate to get volunteers that they recruit board members who aren’t a good fit and can’t help the organization achieve its goals.

No limits. How long should someone be a board member? If the governance structure doesn’t set limits you can end up with long-serving board members who inevitably get involved in issues that are not board related.

What can you do about poorly performing board members?

Some people gotta grow. Some of the volunteers you have on your current board only need a little bit of guidance to become awesome board members. Don’t wait to do something about this! Creating and executing a growth plan for each board member will deepen their commitment to your organization and help you recruit new board members more easily because they’ll hear about how much your current board members are learning, growing and contributing.

Some people gotta go. We all understand this. If helping them grow isn't an option, find a way to respectfully help your poorly performing board members to exit. Because if you don’t, then your high performing board members may become frustrated and quit, not to mention that you’ll continue to have unproductive board meetings.

4. Be realistic.

You would never expect a college football team to win the Superbowl and you wouldn’t ask your eight-year-old child to drive your car. So if your current nonprofit board can’t achieve your organizational goals then it’s time to bring in outside help. For example, if you’re current volunteers don’t have the marketing ability or contacts to raise the funds you need, then you might need to hire a professional fundraiser. If they don’t have the know-how to build a strategic plan then consider bringing in a management consultant. Regardless of what you are trying to do you should always have the right people in place to achieve your goals.

5. Listen and be heard.

The most interesting people are those who are interested. So here are a few techniques that will help your volunteer board members to listen and be heard more effectively at your next meeting:

  • Talk Less
  • Repeat what you heard. After somebody finishes speaking you can summarize what they’ve said by briefly repeating back what you’ve heard to show that you truly understood what they said.
  • Use their name. To really deepen the connection with your fellow board members, say their name after you repeat what they’ve said. Because the sweetest sound in the world that everyone loves to hear is their name.
  • Acknowledge the ‘Quiet’ people. So often it is the ‘Talkers’ who dominate board meetings. So make sure that that you find a way for the ‘Quiet’ volunteers to be heard during each board meeting.

6. Learn how to fight.

If you want to get things done you have to be able to disagree in a productive way and move on. But it is often the case that nonprofit volunteers don’t know how to fight effectively and their board meetings can get bogged down. Here are a few suggestions to help you learn how to fight well during your next meeting.

Figure out why it’s worth disagreeing. For example, if you are dealing with an important issue it may be critical to hear all points of view so that you can make the most effective decision. If you understand this in advance then you can warn everyone that this discussion may get heated but that will be because people passionately believe in their point of view. This type of preparation will help you build the right level of trust in the meeting to allow everyone to feel free to fully express themselves.

Develop a ‘fight’ guideline. You may all agree that in order to fight effectively you will have one person talk at a time, stop the discussion if it gets personal, step out of the room if someone gets angry, and ensure that once a decision is made that you and the entire board of directors supports it.

Acknowledge the benefits of fighting well. If people know they can speak their mind then there is a good chance that some of your most innovative ideas will get expressed during your board meetings.

7. Budget for board meeting success.

Getting better takes time and effort. Setting aside the necessary time, resources and money to improve your nonprofit board meetings is one of the best investments you can make in overall performance. If you don’t do this then you can expect more of the same from your next nonprofit board meeting.

8. Celebrate!

Many nonprofit boards work hard at fixing things and then they forget to celebrate their success. So if you’re going to put the effort into making your board meetings more effective then here are a few suggestions about how you can celebrate your achievements:

  • Start by asking your volunteers for suggestions
  • Have a potluck meal at your next meeting
  • The meeting leader can send hand written thank-you cards to each volunteer
  • Recognize the entire board through the newsletter
  • Hold an off-site event like bowling or golf
  • Praise the board on social media
  • Get a group portrait of the board done and put it on the meeting room wall
  • Read a testimonial letter out loud at a board meeting

Do you know how much money and time is being spent on your nonprofit board meetings? What would happen if you if you made every one of those meetings awesome?

Gord Sheppard is a professional meeting facilitator, consultant, speaker and author who can help you create more productive and profitable meetings. During his 25 years of work experience Gord has facilitated, run and participated in more than 2,000 meetings and he has lived to tell the tale! Gord's formal training includes a Masters in Business Administration from the University of Alberta, a Bachelor's Degree in Drama from Queen's and Prosci Change Management Certification. With his combined skill set Gord offers a people-centred facilitation approach that can help you make your next meeting awesome. If you'd like more great tips and inspiration, or to learn more about Gord, please visit

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