I want to start with a simple observation based on my experience over the years, which may not be immediately obvious: if a director doesn’t take much part in the life of the organisation, it is not necessarily due to indifference (or a lack of time or any other reason of this type).
Usually, that’s the impression.
But when you dig even just a little bit deeper, many other things tend to emerge.
If there’s something that saddens people in my profession, it’s the apathy, that mood of slightly bored resignation that develops in board meetings when one person is speaking and everyone else is listening, mutely.
Or checking their email on their smartphones.
Or doodling on their notepad without even raising their head.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m one of those people who doodle on diaries, notepads and any piece of paper within reach.
I don’t check my smartphone, because I think it’s impolite and because I think multitasking damages effectiveness if it’s compulsive and taken beyond certain limits – doing one thing at a time, as well as possible, is enough, in my view.
I’m also one of those people who wants to take part, if they’re involved. And who wants other people to do so too, because a board is a collegiate body and, as such, functions best when everyone contributes.
So, sad board meetings.
Even so – and I say it equally bluntly – they are not always the result of apathy among the directors.
Sometimes, staying alert during interminable reports (often delivered from notes, not even off the cuff), or being faced with decisions that have already been taken and only need to be ratified, is not exactly a stimulus to say your own piece.
Obviously, the question is how the board works.
This is what I want to examine in this post, to give you a few ideas on how to restore the group dynamic of a collegiate body if you ever find yourself in this type of situation.
As always, these suggestions are ideas I have put into practice in my own work, so they are practical tips that can be quickly applied.
The first suggestion is to do with the engagement and interaction of the directors.
The person responsible for calling the meeting, preparing the minutes and the agenda, reviewing the order of business – usually the secretary – has a delicate and decisive task. Because the way we communicate has an immediate impact on the recipient’s perception of the communication.
So an agenda written in “officialese” (a word I dislike, but in this context I think it’s appropriate), with bullet points and in a dry language, is not perhaps a form of communication that will arouse enthusiasm – we’re talking about a non-profit organisation: passion for the cause, remember?
It might be helpful to re-write the agenda using a key word that can be expanded into 5-6 lines of description and the goal to be achieved (i.e., the decision to be taken); or to edit the reports for the board meeting in brief points and key concepts, which can be discussed in depth if necessary, rather than present pages and pages of words in justified Times New Roman 12 which make you drowsy after the first 10 lines.
Isn’t that better?
Still on this point: board meetings are often organised quite far apart. At intervals of a month, in the best case, otherwise at longer intervals.
Communications, updates and reminders between one meeting are unlikely, except, sometimes, between the very small group of directors who are always present. Sometimes.
Remember “out of sight, out of mind”? If the old saying has been going strong for several thousand years, there must be some truth to it.
An idea that works well, in these cases, is to email updates at regular intervals between board meetings – for example, if meetings are held on a quarterly basis, once a month ensures continuous updating without being intrusive – using a layout similar to a newsletter rather than a list of bullet points.
It’s not difficult: free programs are available to create documents with an attractive personalised layout that presents the content effectively.
Personally – and I’m not particularly tech-savvy – I use (and have got other people using) MailChimp, but other programs are just as good.
You start by setting up a format, planning the transmission dates, deciding on the tone of voice… and then you hit send.
It sounds easy, because it really is. And planning transmission dates and content makes (professional) life easier. The content doesn’t have to be the latest news, it can be more of a round-up of life in the organisation – the main activities since the last meeting, perhaps a few particularly successful social posts, or an article with news about the mission, which can provide useful starting points. In short, you’re spoiled for choice. What you need is a (simple, lightweight) action plan and a little time to roll it out.
The results are guaranteed: you’re recounting the “behind the scenes” for people whose job is to steer the organisation’s strategic development and will therefore be interested in the day-to-day goings-on.
This is an excellent way to keep the whole board focused, up to date with the latest information, close to the heart of the organisation’s activities.
Another proven way of keeping the board close to the heart of the mission is to organise training and residential events.
Let’s take them separately: on-going training, in my view, is one of those tools that should be used often and well because it generates ideas, opens up perspectives, offers different points of view, plots new paths. In a word: it stimulates change.
And for the members of a board of directors, change and development are – or at least should be – core issues.
Training doesn’t necessarily mean whole days spent in the classroom – if directors are volunteers it can be difficult to get them away from their daily commitments and bring them together. It could take the form of theme-specific workshops or laboratories, lasting an afternoon, which could be repeated 2 or 3 times over the course of a year, covering strategic issues the directors should be trained in (and informed about).
Some examples: the Reform of the Voluntary Sector or a specific new law in the sector in which the organisation operates, communication, team building, to name just a few. Or, and this is an issue with which I’m closely involved, fundraising, in relation to a tool or another related topic – how many directors really know what we’re talking about when we talk about fundraising? (the reference is a free adaptation of the famous Raymond Carver title “What we talk about when we talk about love?”).
Still on the training theme, an experience I found useful is to organise “residential” events, in locations away from the organisation – holiday farms, B&Bs or hotels: places that create a “holiday” mood – in order to work on the personal relations among the board members, on development issues in a full-immersion and (more or less) permanent session lasting the entire weekend, on sharing thoughts and ideas.
For this to work, the residential event needs a purpose (to be declared in advance, so that all the participants know what they will be working on), a coordinator (if the role is not taken by the chair).
And of course – and this also applies to training in the strict sense – a budget.
Don’t let the word put you off. Large investments are almost never needed to organise training or residential activities: one of the best practices I am delighted to see in all the organisations I meet is the ability to formulate alternative solutions to the first option, at zero cost or almost, without losing effectiveness.
Planning this sort of opportunity for the board, even just once a year, is an excellent way to encourage the directors to – and I use the term in a deliberately exaggerated way – “look after” the organisation, to feel close to it, part of their own lives, and not, as sometimes happens, as yet another appointment to be squeezed into a diary already packed with engagements.