Board meetings get all the attention, but the magic of good governance doesn’t really begin or end at the board table. Just as it’s not the pomp and circumstance of graduation that will matter most in any young adult’s life, but rather what happens before and after the actual event. The same is true regarding almost any gathering set within the context of an ongoing relationship or process – whether wedding, athletic competition, or meeting. Yes, even board meetings. Especially board meetings.
While most leaders recognize the importance of preparation, for any activity, many neglect to specify what must happen – and by whom. Effective boards benefit from a clearly outlined sequence of steps – along with responsible parties — that occur in advance of every board meeting. Both staff and board members should have defined tasks, such as prepare financial data or review the budget draft. Indeed, as noted by Nonprofit Hub, “the meeting starts before the meeting. suggests preparation starts with the collection and distribution of financials, reports, and any other materials that should be reviewed prior to meeting. Early access obviously gives directors time to take notes, prepare questions, and familiarize themselves with all the information. It also eliminates the potential for surprise, which can thwart productivity in meetings.
A LinkedIn blogger agrees, asserting that “systematically preparing for your next meeting not only eliminates some major stress, it can actually improve your organization’s overall performance and impact.” The author, Brian Lauterbach, continues, “the simplest and most effective way to consistently achieve optimal results from your board and board meetings is to streamline the preparation process for your next meeting.” To that end, he offers a 15-step process that includes some noteworthy tips, such as:
- Prepare and distribute meeting minutes to all board members and appropriate organizational leadership within 24 hours after each board meeting to leverage these advantages:
- Ideas and action items are still fresh in all parties’ minds.
- Routine can enable thoughtful and timely follow-up for action items.
- Prompt delivery of minutes demonstrates that board members’ time and talents are valued.
- Prepare the next meeting agenda by using a template that includes standard board meeting procedures (ie. approval of previous minutes, consent items). Then use action items from the prior board meeting, along with the strategic plan and upcoming calendar items, to generate a “complete but tentative mission-driven agenda” for the next meeting.
Board members should understand the purpose of every discussion item. Using the STARS (specific, timed, actionable, relevant, and shared) agenda tool helps establish clear standards for developing effective agendas. After meetings between the CEO and Board Chair, as well as between the CEO and key staff leaders, finalize an appropriate agenda for the next meeting.
- Review action items with board members throughout the month to ensure completion before the next meeting.
- Prepare packets and use online resources to improve communications between board meetings. Such tools also serve as an easily accessible place to compile vital documents.
It’s noteworthy that mention of online tools typically corresponds with preparation of meeting packets. While certainly crucial to that function, as illustrated by a new feature of BoardEffect that enables files to be visible upon uploading (even before the compilation of the board book is complete), online tools are designed to facilitate each of the above steps. And more
Before a meeting, for instance, a board member might want to reference a board “handbook” to review policies, strategic planning documents, the mission statement, and/or previous meeting minutes. And what about archived meeting books, which might prove very relevant to board members in reviewing action items or the context of an ongoing discussion?
The concept of archived materials seems to bridge the period before and after board meetings. Though materials can’t be preserved until the meeting has occurred, referring to them is at once an after-the-fact and, presumably, preparatory activity in anticipation of the next meeting.
In order to archive board packets, organizations must follow their document retention policies, which inform how information is managed – specifically, what types of documents must be kept and for how long. As emphasized by the Council of Nonprofits, a written document retention policy ensures that all staff, board members, and volunteers “follow consistent guidance about document destruction” and that document destruction/deletion practices become standard business practices throughout the organization. Creating and following such policies are part of the board’s fiduciary responsibility and address issues around discoverability, so familiarity with them should be expected.
Since regulations vary from state to state and among different segments of the sector, there are no universal rules for all nonprofits to follow. However, the Council of Foundations does list the following documents as those that every charitable nonprofit should save permanently:
- Articles of Incorporation
- Audit reports, from independent audits
- Corporate resolutions
- Determination Letter from the IRS, and correspondence relating to it
- Financial statements (year-end)
- Insurance policies
- Minutes of board meetings and annual meetings of members
- Real estate deeds, mortgages, bills of sale
- Tax returns
By no means is that list exhaustive, but rather a starting point. An important footnote is that retention policies apply equally to documents saved in paper files or online. The Council of Foundations also suggests that some documents are not necessary to keep from a legal perspective, but might be worthwhile for the sake of history or institutional memory. Those documents, in fact, seem likely to be useful for providing context and education to board members, thus another new BoardEffect feature allows archived meeting books to be accessed through mobile applications.
Nonprofit Hub articulates another important step to take after board meetings: recognize and thank board members for their efforts. Appreciation fosters more engagement and participation, which leads to more effective meetings.
Of course board meetings are an essential aspect of good governance, but remember they are a culmination of tremendous effort that precedes them as well as a precursor to work that follows. Effective board governance is an ongoing process that requires more than good meeting.