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?

10 responses to How often should a board meet?

  1. Kirsten Bullock

    What great ideas for keeping the board focused on the essential items too – and not drifting into operational concerns… Thanks Gayle!

  2. Sandy Rees

    I think you’re right that a fully functioning Board doesn’t need to meet monthly. But, most Boards aren’t fully functioning and the monthly schedule helps keep them on track.

    Don’t you wish we could just wave a magic wand and fix all that ails the typical nonprofit Board? 😉

    Sandy Rees

    • Gayle Gifford Post Author

      I wonder often though if a reason for some less than optimal boards is that they meet too often? When there just is enough real governing work to do in the actual board meeting, you can end up with board meetings where there isn’t meaningful work and whether or not members show up doesn’t matter, leading to difficulty getting quorums. I’d rather spend time working one on one to unleash member capabilities and connections for the organization, than force members to monthly meetings that don’t need to be.

  3. Betsy Baker

    I find that it’s usually trial and error in determining a schedule for Board meetings based on that particular Board’s personality. Play around with the schedule and see what timing is best for them. The dynamics of a Board can change radically from group to group.

  4. Sherry Truhlar

    I like the idea of an annual board meeting plan. I think it would be key to consider other key events or activities as a board schedules those governing activities. If some board members are very active with an organization’s event or a subcommittee that has a particular busy time of the year, it would be good to balance those governing duties at another time of the year. A tough balance in not tapping a few members too often and keep others engaged.

  5. How Your Nonprofit Board Impacts Your Marketing Efforts

    […] Your board only meets once or twice a year. This to me is a very hands-off board – not that we want too much hands-on but you have to be able to address marketing & PR issues in a timely manner – some of which may require board assistance or oversight. And if you aren’t having regular board meetings, you just aren’t taking the nonprofit seriously enough and it will SHOW. How often should you meet? Here’s a great article from Butterfly Effect. […]

  6. Nancy Rahim

    Should you host monthly Executive Board Meetings before your monthly Chapter Meetings?

    • Gayle Gifford

      Help me understand a bit more about the relationships between your chapter meetings and the board meetings. Are the Chapter Meetings all of your members, including non-board members? Is the Executive Board the full government body, or a subset of that? What might be driving your question?

  7. Caroline Moody Buckley

    I have recently become a member of a Board of Director it seems we have so much to go over with the resolutions that need to be redone and the buildings that need to be built. All the meetings that need to be attended. The list almost seems endless how do you get anything done in one meeting a year or even one meeting a month for that matter?

    • Gayle Gifford

      Caroline, Does your organization have staff? What have you delegated to the staff and what volunteer work has the board taken on? My advice would be to think hard about how to delegate more decisions to the right people, and then let them do their work.

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