One of the biggest challenges for board members of small charities is finding a healthy balance between focusing on operational responsibilities and making time for strategy and governance. It is especially difficult for charities with little or no paid staff, as the board will often be tasked with taking over the key operational activities required in running the organization. Even while handling these important and urgent tasks, there’s still ample opportunity to prioritize key governance and strategic initiatives without adding too much additional time onto already very full plates.

The best way to do that is by preserving your board meeting time for strategy and governance, instead of operational discussions. The following suggestions are how to keep your meeting time focused on the big picture.

  • Implement a Consent Agenda to save time every meeting: by introducing a Consent Agenda into your board meetings, your board will divert time away from common business agenda items that do not require discussion and allow you to get more value out of your meetings. A Consent Agenda groups items like previous board and committee meeting minutes, operational reports, and monthly financials to allow them to be approved by one motion instead of individually. Any item that warrants further discussion can be pulled out and added to the Agenda proper, but this process trusts your board members to come to meetings prepared having read the distributed materials. This way your board understands that their time at the table is valuable and doesn’t slow down the pace at the beginning of the meeting going over routine matters. 
  • Put timing constraints on your agenda: your Chair has a responsibility to ensure discussions don’t go off track or take up too much meeting time. If you put timing constraints on your agenda, the Chair will have an additional benchmark to point to when moving discussions along. This will also ensure that important decisions or discussions that are slated towards the end of the meeting are given their due time and aren’t rushed or pushed to the following month. This encourages your board to choose their discussion points wisely and ensure only value added points are being raised. 
  • Use a Board Calendar to plan effectively: a Board Calendar will allow you and your team to plan for the next 12 months and ensure each meeting is touching on a key work commitment. By planning for it annually, it will help you prioritize key strategic deliverables like CEO evaluation, risk management, annual budget approval, strategic planning, and board nominations/recruitment. When the time comes for that generative discussion topic, the board is prepared to dedicate their time to the matter. It is important to commit and stick to this plan, though. If more pressing matters arise, you may be forced to defer these discussions to a future meeting, but this practice should not be made habit. Everyone on the board must commit to prioritize these strategic deliverables. 
  • Committee/working groups: the previous tips will allow for more time for the strategic and governance discussions, but when does the board focus on the very important operational work of running the organization? The key to solving this issue is delegating these tasks to staff primarily, but when that is not possible, assigning work to committees or working groups will be necessary. Although committees and working groups should have at least one board member, its participants don’t need to be made up entirely of board members. This is where leveraging your volunteer pool will be important, especially for volunteers whose skill set or interests may not make them ideal board members, but can add value on routine and everyday tasks. This can take the form of marketing or website volunteers, volunteer management, or even building maintenance. It’s important that committees don’t have any direct decision making power, apart from the decisions it has been tasked to make via the board; and a clear terms of reference for each group is necessary because it serves to clarify the purpose and the scope for these committees. Any minutes, motions, or decisions that arise from committee meetings will be included in the board package and the board member who sits on each committee should be available to answer any questions that arise at the board meeting, but it allows the board to not spend precious board meeting time discussing the minutiae of operational activities that aren’t necessarily significant for decision making.

These small changes should allow for better board meetings with more focused discussions on strategy and governance. This also isn’t to say that operational and business-as-usual discussions aren’t important or that the board shouldn’t concern themselves with the goings-on of the charity. A good phrase to remember for good board governance is “noses in, fingers out”. Boards should remain vigilant, but keep a respectful distance of the operational activities. It will allow for good governance, and an easier scale-up as the organization can afford to hire more staff and grow their influence.

Originally published on March 30, 2020 on CharityVillage.com

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