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Virtual Board Meetings Are Becoming The Norm For Nonprofits

Nonprofit Virtual Board Meeting Pro Tips From a BoardEffect Client

On April 2, 2020, Mitch Johnson co-presented a webinar on “Best Practices for Virtual Board Meetings During COVID-19,” along with Dottie Schindlinger, Executive Director of the Diligent Institute, and a founding team member of BoardEffect. In this blog post, Mitch shares his insights on several of the questions asked by the audience of over 700 webinar participants.

Watch the Webinar Replay here.

Tips for Board Engagement

Q: “I have a very small board, and I feel like during the COVID-19 situation there are decisions that need to be made rapidly and it’s difficult to gather board members to make a decision from day to day, even virtually.  What might help my board become more engaged right now?” 

A: Right now, we all have an anxiety-inducing array of demands on our time, attention, and psyches – and that is as true for board members and organizational leaders, as it is for front-line staff and volunteers.  Were all living under the specter of a serious illness befalling ourselves or someone we love.  We might be struggling to secure enough basic provisions for our households, and many people have had to suddenly take on roles like teacher, coach, chef, care-giver and job-seeker in addition to all they were doing before this crisis.  Its not too surprising that your board members are distracted – they are only human, after all.  But this is the very moment when organizations need strong leadership, and your board has a fiduciary obligation that cannot be ignored, particularly not in the midst of this crisis.  

This could be an opportunity for your board chair and chief executive to recommit to one another and work in tandem to galvanize the rest of the board to take action.  Even when times are calm, the board chair and chief executive work together in a strategic partnership – serving as a check and a balance for one another, but also helping to game plan what needs to happen across the rest of the organization.  Now is no different; only the need is greater.  Get the board chair and chief executive director talking (daily if needed) until they create a clear plan to get the boards attention back on addressing the needs of your organization.  

Q: “How can we engage Board members and be more inclusive during virtual meetings?”  

A: Virtual meetings can be tough to navigate, but as they have replaced face-to-face meetings for the time being it is vital to keep those attending engaged.  The first tip would be to plan your agenda carefully. For many the default approach is to simplify virtual meetings and make a one-way flow of information, but your board is your governing partner during this crisis and you need to plan for engagement. Rather than trying to cover all topics on an informative level, choose those that are most mission critical and could benefit from board participation.  Having fewer items on the agenda will set you up for more discussion during your meeting. Secondly, use the tools provided by your virtual meeting platform.  Most platforms use polls, chat, and other non-verbal feedback features such as a raise-hands feature.  For many board members using these tools could even increase their involvement over an in-person meetings, giving those who often do not speak up a chance to give their input.  

In many ways virtual meetings can be a great opportunity to increase the inclusivity of your meetings. For the deaf and hard of hearing many virtual platforms support Closed Captioning which can be captioned by a capable staff member or through a 3rd party professional captioning service. It is also important to consider those who are visually impaired and may not be able to use or benefit from the visual platform. Make sure you are prepared with instructions for call-in only participants to be able to mute and unmute their phone lines, and providing them an opportunity to speak up if you are primarily using the chat feature for Q&A.  Finally, encouraging all participants to include pronouns along with their name in the platform is a great way to encourage inclusivity for transgender and non-binary participants. 

Q: “What feedback did you receive from your boards of directors after the virtual meeting?” 

A: We received quite a bit of feedback on how we were able to pull off a meeting so quickly and with so very few technical issues.  However, we had a solid plan and had prepared our staff and board members for the virtual environment. So technical issues, while I am proud we did not encounter them, were secondary to planning an engaging agenda. The best feedback came from those who let us know how successful the content was. One participant wrote, “Thank you all for the thoughtful and incredible turnaround on this meeting… This was the medicine we all needed – to connect with this community that continues to give us so much – in this challenging moment in history. Thank you for bringing us all together and energizing us this way! That is really the feedback you want and should look for from your meeting.  

Tips for Meeting Protocols & Procedures

Q: “Please speak about meeting protocols, including do you mute everyone during presentations and only allow questions during Q&A? Do you unmute everyone during Q&A? How do you control the flow of questions and allow everyone to feel engaged in the discussion?” 

A: It is easy to lose control over time and flow when you open a virtual meeting up for questions, but there are some easy steps to help mitigate that valuable time from being wasted.  An important tip: begin every meeting by laying out the meeting protocols. Inform participants that they will be muted on entry. Let them know how to mute and unmute their line, but encourage them to use the non-verbal tools within the virtual meeting platform.  Encourage all questions to be posted to the meeting chat.  Using this tool, staff and board leadership are able to work many answers into their presentations, and prioritize and reorder questions to keep the best meeting flow.  Secondly, encourage the use of the “raise hands” feature as a way for a board member to indicate they would like to add verbally to the conversation. Board leadership or staff can then call on those who’ve “raised their hands” for timely comments. Finally, at the end of all Q&A sessions, open the lines and give everyone the opportunity to speak.  This way, everyone is able to participate, even if they have been unable to use the chat or other features. Following this strategy minimizes board members speaking over each other or asking questions that side-track the conversation. 

Q: “How do you handle executive session (a.k.a. ‘in camera’ or ‘closed’ sessions) where staff aren’t present?” 

A: Closed or executive sessions can be one of the most important agenda items for an engaging virtual board meeting.  We discussed having one staff member, such a board relations manager or liaison, remain on the call and continue to manage Q&A sessions and provide technical support. However, after debate we decided it was more important to honor the closed session time with no staff present. In order to do this successfully, you should plan a runthrough with your board leadership prior to the meeting to make sure they fell comfortable with the chat feature and meeting controls.  Then during the meeting, model this style of discussion and Q&A.  By the time your board comes to “closed session” at the end of the meeting, the board chair should be comfortable taking control. Staff members are able to drop off the call, but remain reachable via text in case any technical issues or questions arise. 

Tips for Using Virtual Meeting Tools

Q: “Did you kick people out of the virtual meeting if you couldn’t identify who they were?” 

A: Yes, we were upfront with board members that our sessions are confidential, and that no unidentified individuals would be allowed into the meeting. In some virtual meeting platforms there is a “waiting room” feature.  We were able to use this feature and only admitted board members into the meeting. It is important that board members be well informed of this plan and know how to properly identify themselves in the meeting. They should also know who to contact for acceptance into the meeting if they are not initially allowed in.  In our case, we had a board phone contact list and were able to quickly match up the numbers of the few members who were not able to login. 

Q: “Can requiring pre-registration, where people enter their full name in advance and receive a unique Zoom login link, also help identify attendees and reduce the risk of ‘Zoombombing’?” 

A: Yes, if set up properly, requiring pre-registration can help alleviate some of the issues faced with “Zoomboming,” but the extra step does require some considerations.  First, pre-registration can have a manual or automatic approval. Using an automatic approval does not really solve the “Zoomboming” issue. However, requiring manual approval could require you to have an additional staff member monitoring an approval list for board members who may have forgotten to register until the last minute. It is also an extra step to troubleshoot should a board member have technical issues.  Another option to consider is password-protecting your meeting to remove the chance of “Zoombombing,” but once again it creates an extra step that could create issues for your board members trying to join the meeting. For HRC’s board meetings, we tried not to require these additional steps. We want to be able to just send the board member a link or call in number and then use the “waiting room” to screen participants. If your board meeting is a manageable size, using the waiting room feature might be a better option.  

Mitch Johnson is the Board and Volunteer Relations Manager for HRC, the Human Rights Campaign.  In this role, Mitch is responsible for strategic and logistical support for both the HRC and HRC Foundation Boards of Directors, including planning all board meetings and calls. He coordinates with staff and board members on a regular basis, across all HRC departments and plans, manages and directs the annual Equality Convention, HRC’s largest volunteer leadership and training event. Mitch also serves as the key liaison for all communications with board members, acts as a conduit between staff and board leadership, and provides staff support to Board Development Committees.


Dottie Schindlinger

Dottie Schindlinger is Executive Director of the Diligent Institute, the governance think tank and research arm of Diligent Corporation. In her role, Dottie promotes the intersection of governance and technology as a recognized expert in the field. She co-authored Governance in the Digital Age: A Guide for the Modern Corporate Board Director, ©2019, John Wiley & Sons Publishers, and is creator and co-host of The Corporate Director Podcast, a fortnightly show featuring corporate directors sharing their stories about modern governance.
Dottie was a founding team member of BoardEffect, a board management software platform launched in 2007 focused on serving the needs of healthcare, higher education & nonprofit boards. Prior to BoardEffect, she spent 15 years working in a variety of governance roles, including as a board support professional, consultant, trainer, board member, and senior executive. Dottie serves as the Vice Chair of the Board of the Alice Paul Institute, and is a Fellow of the Salzburg Global Seminar. She is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania.

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