Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Are you making your volunteer board work too hard?

This week’s blog is a salute to the superstar volunteers of the board that serve as committee members or members of a special task force.

The real work of the board is done through committees and/or through special task forces. Committees and task forces are made up of talented people that collect, analyze, and study data and information on issues and opportunities and then report their findings along with their recommendations to the board for a specific action. This process could be quite detailed and rather daunting and time consuming. But, without committees and task forces board meetings would take many hours and volunteers would be severely overworked. The truth of the matter is that every board meeting needs to be carefully conducted to where every minute is spent on the approval of actions that advance the mission of the organization and if committee work had to be done in the board room no action would ever be taken!

Therefore, do your board a favor and help them govern better by empowering committees and task forces to perform all of the legwork required for a board to be truly effective. Your board meetings will be more productive because more decisions will be made and less time will be spent sitting at the board table because the committees and task forces will have done the homework and provided the board with all of the necessary information to make the right decisions.

So, how do you get started? First, it is important to know the difference between a committee and a task force. So, here they are:

• Committees, sometimes called standing committees, are a permanent part of the board structure and generally are stipulated and formed through the authority of the agency’s bylaws (i.e. Executive Committee, Budget & Finance Committee, etc.).

• A task force is usually temporary and is only formed on an as-needed basis often to research a particular issue for later recommendation and possible debate by the board. This allows greater flexibility in the work that the board must do to govern.

Just like full board meetings, committees and task force groups work best if the chair or facilitator is experienced. There are no legal requirements to determine how a committee or task force should function so the chair will often decide how formal these meetings need to be. Obviously the chair should be well trained and experienced enough to ensure that there is enough involvement by all members so that they can produce positive results. In addition, these meetings don’t necessarily require that any formal minutes be taken but at the very least someone should make note of the agenda topics and important group decisions made along the way.

The main goal and objective of a committee or task force is to research, analyze, and study a topic or issue with the intent to make a full recommendation to the board of directors. This process should be taken seriously and the committee or task force should be given adequate time to come to a conclusion. This may require the use of professionals or other organizations specially trained to help. Once complete, the committee or task force will provide the board, normally through a written or oral report, enough relevant information to make an intelligent decision and to take action that will bind the agency. The board must, therefore, trust that the committee or task force has studied all of the necessary details and their report is a comprehensive account of the results.

So, to all of you volunteer committee and task force members out there… Thank you for all of your hard work and dedication to the mission of the nonprofit agency you so faithfully serve. It is your hard work and due diligence that allows the agency, through its board of directors to make the necessary decisions that help them to govern so well.

Are you using your committees and task forces? Or, are you overworking your board? Please share with me your experience with committee and task force work and how you use them to advance your mission?

Monday, October 19, 2009

Who is really running your board meetings?

This week I want to focus on the role of the board chair and the importance of this position, particularly in relation to productive and successful board meetings. Obviously, the board chair plays a major role in leading the strategic direction and governance of a nonprofit agency. However, I am going to limit my discussion to the role that the board chair plays as the designated facilitator or leader of board meetings.

The board chair has a great burden to carry because the rest of the board expects the chair to be articulate, decisive, and in total control of board meetings at all times. The role of the board chair is to make sure that the agenda fits the meeting and that the meeting runs smoothly. This includes making sure, ahead of time, that board members come to meetings prepared and that they take their role, as board member, very seriously. The chair is also expected to have completed the necessary preparations for addressing the big issues of the meeting and has the skill to engage every member in the discussion. This may include taming the “wild ones” or encouraging the "quiet ones." The chair facilitates the proceedings, discussions, and is very careful to guard each person’s dignity should a debate arise. This skill demands a basic understanding of parliamentary procedure, even if the board does not always adhere to this structure strictly.

The chair’s primary function is to ensure that the objectives of the agenda are achieved. The chair is a master of flexibility and a great judge of whether discussion should continue or if it is best to keep to the schedule and send complex issues to committee for further study. In the event that all of the information has been presented and discussed the chair must be able to decide when it is time to vote. Or, if it is impossible to reach a consensus, the chair must decide to table an issue until additional data becomes available. In this case, the chair’s decisiveness and good judgment allows the meeting to proceed.

In conclusion, board meetings can be more productive if the board chair followed some basic principles:

• Own the agenda
• Get to know the personal attributes of individual board members
• Explain the personal philosophy of how meetings will be run
• Engage every board member during board meetings
• Control the domineering characters and bring the best out of difficult colleagues
• Remain objective and fair
• Become familiar with parliamentary procedures
• Earn the respect of peers
• Lighten up and use humor in the board room

The board meeting is a continuous cycle that keeps the board chair quite busy. The job of the board chair does not end with the adjournment of the meeting. It involves regular follow-up and planning with the CEO and a special commitment to the other members of the board and the job itself. Please share with me extraordinary stories about your dynamic board chair?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Are you hosting board meetings alone? Where are your board members?

This week we will continue to explore the dynamics of productive and successful board meetings.

A situation that plagues nonprofit boards from time to time is absenteeism. This is a troublesome problem that needs the CEO’s attention because if not addressed it could disrupt the business of governing the agency. The business of the agency requires a majority vote. If board members are constantly and consistently absent, you can see how this would cause quite a problem.

In order to be a contributing board member, it is important that you come to meetings prepared, but it is equally important that you also attend as many board meetings as humanly possible. The ideal situation is to not miss a single meeting. However; in a perfect world, business and life obligations make this nearly impossible, and that is definitely understandable! That is why most agency by-laws address absenteeism and allow for a certain number of excused absences. But; what do you do when a board member consistently exceeds the allowable number of excused absences?

Well, the first thing to do is determine whether you are dealing with a personal dilemma or whether a change in the meeting structure or logistics can help. The latter is difficult because a change in structure or meeting logistics may cause others to develop a problem with absenteeism too. Remember that every board member has value and it would be counterproductive to lump all excessively absent board members into the same proverbial basket. So; by addressing the origin of each individual situation, you can try to bring change. This is often best done by the Chair of the board.

Here are some ideas for eliminating absenteeism at your board meetings:

1. Address absenteeism during the new board member orientation and explain that attendance is obligatory
2. Spend board meeting time on issues that matter!
3. Give board members roles that are important
4. Listen to board members when obstacles for attendance appear
5. Have a formal policy outlining removal if absenteeism becomes a problem

Each board member has value and as the CEO of the agency it is your responsibility to see that you are maximizing each board member’s talents. If a board member is absent from more than three meetings it is important to listen to your board member’s reasons for missing those meetings and to help that board member remove obstacles that keep them from attending. Please share with me the unique ways that you have dealt with excessive board absenteeism?

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Want to organize more productive board meetings? Read to find out how!

How long are your board meetings? Are they under an hour or over an hour? Do you get right down to business? Or, do you allow time for personal interaction?

The goal and objective of every board meeting should be to maximize the use of every one's valuable time. So, how do you find a balance between getting business done; personal interaction, and getting the meeting done in under an hour?

Let's explore some of the things that impact the length of a board meeting:

First, there is the agenda. The agenda is the key tool that will determine the length of the meeting. If you limit the agenda items, you will limit the length of your meeting.

Next, what is the meeting's purpose? The purpose of the meeting will also have an impact on time. For example, regularly scheduled board meetings may follow a regular pattern and may be over in an hour, where special meetings, depending on the issues discussed, could be quite long. Retreats and annual meetings can last a whole day or even an entire weekend.

Another factor that impacts the length of a board meeting is the skill and experience of the board chair. The chair must be skilled at keeping the discussion focused and at following the agenda, but is also responsible for getting everyone engaged. There must be a balance of shared ideas and productive conclusions. If there is too little participation the meeting may seem like a presentation from the board chair and if it becomes a lengthy session of endless comments it will appear like the chair has lost control.

Is staff getting the board materials to board members well before the meeting? Do board members come to the meetings well prepared? These are also factors that impact the length of your board meeting. When board members familiarize themselves with the agenda and supporting material ahead of time, meetings are faster and more productive.

Lastly, put your committees to work! Most of the legwork of the board should be done by committees and task forces. This allows the board to focus on what it does best: analyzing recommendations and determining the directives for critical issues.

Thank you to all of the volunteers of the Oil Region Alliance of Business, Industry & Tourism! Volunteers are the backbone of every non profit agency. Help your board members help you by making their job easy. Place a very high value on their time and get them back to their office as quickly as possible!

Help me to organize better meetings. What techniques are you using to make your meetings more productive? Please share them with me?