How often should a board meet?
“Much of the governing work of the board is highly episodic.”
– Richard Chait et al in Governance as Leadership
If your board is like many in the US, July and August might be time for a scheduled break from board meetings. Maneuvering around vacation schedules so the board can still make quorum seems a futile exercise, so many boards just skip meeting in these summer months (in other parts of the world, your break may be at another time on the calendar).
But this is a good time to ask, how often does our board really need to meet?
In many organizations a monthly schedule is sacrosanct. Why?
A common rationale I’ve heard for keeping to a monthly schedule is that board members will be less engaged in the organization if they don’t show up each month. But I wonder if too many of us are unwisely using the board meeting as the only touch point with board members. (Asking directors to a meeting that isn’t a good use of their time won’t build director passion and engagement, no matter how often they meet.)
When you’ve cleared the board meeting agenda of the clutter of committee reporting, gotten adept at dashboard monitoring and instituted a consent agenda to efficiently deal with routine, noncontroversial actions, your board may find itself facing a very BIG question: what is the real governing work that this board has to do?
That’s when you might find that you don’t need so many board meetings after all.
A useful way to determine how many board meetings you might need is to draw up an annual board meeting plan.
First, schedule the dates of the action items that you know your board routinely needs to accomplish, e.g. electing directors and officers, holding the annual board meeting, reviewing your 990 and audit, approving your annual budget, discussing your Executive Director’s annual workplan or performance review, or approving the annual board workplan.
Then consider what other big items the board needs to tackle this year. Maybe it’s a review of the assumptions behind your strategic plan. Maybe it’s a thoughtful inquiry into those most difficult questions, like what’s the impact that we are trying to have? how will we know?
Decide at what meetings you’ll schedule these important discussions.
If you find that your board meeting schedule shrinks, that’s okay. I’ve found that meetings that have no significant governing tasks are an open invitation to board micromanaging.
Charity watchdog Wise Giving Alliance of the Better Business Bureau sets a minimum of three board meetings a year in its Charity Accountability Standards. Some organizations may need a bylaws change to have more flexibility in board meeting scheduling.
You may find that with fewer meetings, board members will be up for a longer meeting where they can get much more accomplished or tackle bigger discussion questions.
If you are meeting much less frequently, you’ll need to be even more attentive to building that board team and keeping members informed and engaged. Some things to consider:
- Plan out social time at that longer board meeting so that members can get to know each other.
- Or consider other ways to help board members learn more about each other. Blue Avocado is promoting the 7X7 where a board member gives a 7 minute briefing followed by no more than 7 minutes of questions.
- Develop a communications plan for keeping directors up-to-date between meetings. I’m a fan of the Executive Director’s eNewsletter to the board with quick updates on items of interest, links to important information or events.
- Craft a plan for engagement with each individual board member… what will each member do this year to advance the organization? That might include committee work, but what else? And what support will they need from staff or each other?
I’d love to hear from those of you who have trimmed back the number of board meetings. How did you solve the “engagement” question? How do you keep board members sufficiently informed between meetings?