4 Simple Shifts to Make Your Next Board Meeting More Engaging

Stacey Woods

Being a part of a Board of Directors—whether it’s for a corporate entity or nonprofit organization—is an incredibly important role. Not only does it help you improve your own leadership, communication, and personal skills, but it also gives you an opportunity to use your skill set, experiences, and expertise to make a difference for other companies and people.

Getting the chance to contribute that expertise is critical, and it’s usually done in the form of regular board meetings. No matter what your board’s particular cadence is, these meetings give board members the chance to brainstorm ideas with the organization’s leadership, spark collaborative discussion—and by extension, impact the future of the organization. After all, that’s why you’re there, right? 

Having recently wrapped up the first year of my board appointment (shout-out to Apparo, a nonprofit organization in Charlotte, North Carolina that works to transform communities and improve lives by connecting nonprofits to the technology expertise and resources they need to amplify their impact!)—and being in the business of process simplification and efficiency, I’ve discovered a few ways to make board meetings more interactive and engaging. 

These small tweaks can not only help board members feel like they’re making a meaningful contribution but can also help organizations get the insights they need to make decisions—and make a difference.

Make pre-reading a prerequisite

We’ve all been at meetings where the majority of the time is taken up by a large slideshow presentation—a deck that was probably emailed to you several days in advance. This is a time-waster on both sides, as organizations work hard to get reports and financial statements emailed to their board members so they have time to digest them prior to the board meeting, and most of the board does read this information in advance.

Save time by asking board members to read everything in advance, and hold the first 20 minutes of the meetings for questions related to the pre-read materials. This way, you’re focused on the board’s most important questions and can move on to the good stuff—meaningful discussion—much more quickly.

Develop specific discussion questions

Even with the most rule-following board members, discussions during board meetings can easily go off the rails. You’ve most likely seen it happen during work meetings: the meeting started with a discussion about one key challenge, and by the end of the hour, everyone has a tough time remembering what they were there for. 

This is where it’s critical to think about a set of guided discussion questions that focus on a challenge or problem your organization is dealing with currently—or a future issue that is rapidly approaching. Recently, I attended a board meeting where we were asked to think about this question: “If you were our Executive Director, what challenge would you tackle first, and why?” I loved this question for a few reasons. The first reason is that everyone on our board said something different, and their answers directly connected to their expertise and experience. Second, our Executive Director most likely deals with many challenges that board members never even confront—and it was great to have her as part of this conversation to help us understand the strategic issues she deals with on a daily basis. 

Another idea is to have the majority of your meeting revolve around a key theme. Maybe in one month, you concentrate on partnerships and fundraising. Make sure you invite the organization’s staff members who deal with these areas into the conversation and brainstorm ways that the board and staff can work together to cultivate new relationships or make a big ask.  

Break the mold of a “typical” board meeting

Board meetings need structure, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t be fun. Building in little moments of celebration—and a little bit of friendly competition—gives your board members a sense of ownership. And when there’s ownership, there’s more engagement and action.

One idea is to have a set part of your agenda devoted to celebrations—whether that’s to congratulate a staff member on a work anniversary, talk about the success of a recent event, or highlight a bit of great news coverage the organization received. Another is to literally gamify your board meeting. For example, another aspect of the last board meeting I attended included three rounds of trivia. The first two rounds were specific to the organization and its history, while the third round was a wild card. Not only did I learn a ton over the course of the game, but I also was able to connect with my fellow board members in a much different way than I had before. 

Give board members opportunities to get to know each other outside of meetings

Many organizations are great at onboarding—they do everything they can to make sure their board members have the past and current context of an organization and they make sure expectations are clear in terms of what’s expected of board members. This is wonderful, but there’s also another important part of creating an impactful board—making sure all board members (new and seasoned) have an opportunity to get to know each other outside of the usual meetings. 

There are several ways to accomplish this. One way is to bake in pre- or post-networking into your board meetings, whether it’s a social hour or the group going to dinner together. Another might be to create an outing where your board members volunteer as a group. Creating ways to get to know each other better will also pay dividends when it comes to collaborating and ideating together. 

Board engagement takes time

When you’re asked to serve on a board, it’s exciting. Not only is it a way for you to give back, but it’s also an opportunity to provide support and, with your fellow board members, be an anchor for your particular organization. It’s a big responsibility.

Even with the excitement, board engagement can take time. It makes sense—you’re asking people of different work and personal experiences to come together to build a better future for a cause they care deeply about. But with a few simple shifts in how you conduct board meetings, you’ll soon have plenty of lively debate, impactful discussions, and decisions made that can truly move an organization forward.

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