Technology-aided board meetings: A critical skill for your nonprofit board.

“Geography is an artificially constructed barrier” to recruiting and keeping great directors for your board.  “Why would you let geography stop you from your work of changing the world?”

So says Jaime Campbell, nonprofit board member, accountant and co-owner and CFO of Tier One Services LLC. 

I met Jaime when we had both responded to a  Facebook discussion where some nonprofit staff were unhappy (uneasy?) about  board meetings where everyone was not in the very same room at the same time. I asked Jaime if I might interview her about her own board and professional experiences across geographic boundaries. She graciously offered her time.

So we met face-to-face, though we sat over 1,400 miles from each other. We spoke using Zoom, Jaime from her South Florida office and I from my office in Rhode Island.

Today’s board members are on the move. And busy with other obligations.

You know how difficult it is to find meeting times that work for all. So why  make it hard for directors to participate from a distance.

National and international nonprofits have had to adapt to board members in different locations for many years. But now more and more local nonprofits encounter challenges of getting board members together:

  • Sought-after board members may not live full time in their city or town. I’ve worked with many boards whose directors have residences in not just two, but three or more locations around the world.
  • Many board members travel for work, making them unavailable for board or committee meetings if the only option is sharing the same physical location.
  • Busy work and life schedules can make even a 20 minute commute during rush hour just enough of a bother to skip a board meeting.
  • Family life always takes precedence… no baby sitter, a sick child or spouse at home, even an elderly parent who needs care.
  • Weather events like snow storms or heavy rain can strand directors and cause meetings to be cancelled.

Finding good directors is not easy. So when you do, why let distance be a barrier to the board. Would you rather limit your director pool to only those folks who never have to be anywhere else? Should you just throw up your hands and lament your  frequent inability to make a  quorum? Why resent those otherwise desired directors who can’t show up regularly because they have to be someplace else for work or family.

Technology-aided board meetings are a critical skill for the 21st century board. 

Jaime and I both agree that it’s time for all boards to become comfortable with teleconference and video aided board and committee meetings.

Jaime serves on two boards. The national board meets monthly by phone and Jaime shares her computer screen for the financial reports . Another local  board meets in place and also has members like Jaime who participate by video conferencing. Jaime started on that board when she lived in the area and was able to continue serving even though she moved to another state.

There are so many affordable technology choices, both free and subscription, to enable board member participation.  More and more directors are already using long-distance meeting technology whether for work meetings or checking in with their kids or grandchildren.

It’s not just like being there, it is being there.

One of the complaints we’ve both heard is that directors aren’t as “connected” or can’t bond as they would if they were all sitting in the same room at the same time.

Jaime doesn’t buy that argument. She feels that it is a choice for folks to feel disconnected. Isn’t the purpose of communications technology to enable connections? We both shared the strong connections with colleagues or clients over distances.  Heck, I even have strong bonds with folks I met long ago through AOL discussion boards, way before chat rooms or video were popular.

To underscore that technology enables connection, Jaime passionately suggests banning the terms “remote” or “virtual meeting.” Why encourage words that remind everyone of their geographic distance, she asks.

Jaime puts out that technology can even help enhance engagement:

  • Documents can be shared on screen to ensure everyone is looking at the same item (and to save all of those photocopies).
  • Chat or hand-raising features allow even the shyest to ask a clarifying question.
  • Instead of wildly raising their hand or mulling over an idea or disagreement in their head, directors can post their comment to the meeting chair or facilitator. That allows that director to get back to listening to others, and be queued up to join the discussion.

Technology-enabled meetings do require learning a few skills.

With a background as a musician, Jaime knows the importance of mastering the tool. But that comes best from using it regularly. Really, it doesn’t take a lot of learning to participate in a video meeting.

But Jaime pointed out a few skills that will enhance everyone’s participation.

  1. In conference calls, develop a protocol where everyone introduces themselves every time they speak.
  2. Facilitators need to actively engage folks on the phone or on the screen. For example, use frequent “go-arounds” to check in on where folk are at.. a good facilitation tool, even if everyone is in the very same room.
  3. Have a backup plan… not just Plan B, but also C and D. Sometimes, as we all know, the technology fails us. So determine in advance what the next choice is for participation… options like phone audio, emailing all documents in advance, supplying a back-up  phone line or ensuring everyone has a cell phone number to reach someone at the meeting if they are having trouble connecting.
  4. Hybrid meetings require additional preparation. Hybrids are meetings where some folks are in the room together and others are participating via phone or video. Make sure that everyone can hear, be heard and be seen. Quality speaker phone or large in-room conference screens are essential.  

So, don’t feel that your board recruitment is limited to your immediate geographic area. Instead, search for the best matches, wherever they may be. Then employ the technology that enables every director to be fully present, wherever they happen to be sitting at that particular moment.

I’d love to hear your experiences with your board. What is working for you?

Note: If your board is a  public body, unfortunately, it may not have the  option for technology-enabled participation. Check your state laws for any restrictions that might apply.

Related article:

Calling in? Tips for better board meetings.

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