How to organize a board and hold a good meeting

Robert’s Rules of Order says how to run a meeting. Justin’s Rules of Meetings says when to have them:

  1. Meetings are for decisions. If no decisions need to be made, you don’t need a meeting.
  2. Planning and idea curation is best done methodically in sub-committees. More on this in a moment.

Meetings should always have an agenda disbursed in advance and always have a time limit. Whether that limit is a hard cap or a soft cap is debatable. But any organization with board members or representatives that are volunteering their time should respect their time by having a hard cap on a meeting length. Anything more than 90 minutes is usually unnecessary.

Board structure

The organizations that get the best out of their board members have a central “Executive Board”. This makes the decisions on budgets, financing and expenditures, capital projects, and hiring. These organizations tend to be large in scope and size. They can pull together 15 or 20 people for the cause. Organizations of this size are best served by paid staff or a strong Executive Director. Five or seven members may serve on the Executive Board and the rest, plus the Executive Board members, serve in other capacities on other sub-Boards, like “Fundraising”, “Outreach”, and so on.

Smaller organizations or organizations without paid central staff are at risk of losing interest and investment from their board members if strong performance goals aren’t met. A board of 7, 9, or 11 is common. You should ask these members to commit to a certain number of hours or goals. This gives them a clear guide to what’s being asked of them and gives the organization room to remove the member if they become uninterested. Boards of this size routinely operate in small teams of 2-3 to generate ideas and bring them to the full board.

Board member traits and skills

In both cases, board members should always plug holes with specific needs in the structure of the organization. Look for:

  1. Either a CPA or other finance professional, like a banker. Some organizations may need two.
  2. An investment manager or someone with expertise in making money grow, like a foundation supervisor.
  3. An attorney or another legal professional.
  4. Someone with experience in leadership and management.
  5. A fundraiser or other outreach professional. Someone who’s not afraid of cold-calling people.
  6. Optionally, you may consider a “superstar”. Someone whose sole purpose is to lend their name and goodwill to the organization.
  7. Industry analysts that can impartially give advice about the work being done without being too close to the day-to-day operations.

None of these people necessarily need to do the work of their profession for the organization

Continuity of operations

Organization staff and directors routinely lament to me they find their board “stuck”, “difficult”, “imposing”, or “failing”. The ones I see that do the best have a good spread of diversity that protects them from too many members aging-out or succumbing to group-think.

  1. Require equity involvement. If you require monetary equity this will likely reduce your ability to recruit young members. Consider a mix of time and monetary equity at differing scales, so long as they’re “achievable and recognizable, but not too painful”.
  2. Always retain a seat for the immediate past-President or past Executive.
  3. Pair new members (of any age) with past members (also of any age). This helps organizations retain institutional knowledge and still bring in new members.
  4. Develop mentorship and instructional initiatives that ensure board member at least understand what day-to-day operations are like.

Board performance

Remember, meetings are for decisions. Everything else is work. Establish sub-committees or small teams of 2-3 people, depending on the size of the board to carry out projects and initiatives. Some ideas of work commonly needing oversight and work:

  1. Fundraising
  2. Governance
  3. Strategy and outreach
  4. Event planning
  5. Membership / recruitment
  6. Programs
  7. Executive support

Some responsibilities of some teams will overlap in others – like fundraising and event planning. These small teams or sub-committees should do the work of generating and vetting ideas, creating a rough plan, and bringing the decision to execute, allocate funds, and commit to the full board at regular monthly meetings. Monthly meetings help keep people committed to deadlines and performance.

About the author

Justin Harter

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