Designing An Effective Board Meeting: 5 Things to Consider

by Jeb Banner,

10 February 2022

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As a board member myself, I know what it’s like to sit through one of those meetings that feels like it could have been an email, or one that seems never-ending. Whether it’s due to a skimpy or overstuffed agenda, poor attendee participation, or awkward meeting space, there are plenty of reasons why some board meetings are less effective than others. 

But designing a truly effective board meeting isn’t an impossible task. Sure, it takes a little preparation and forethought. But the time you put in upfront will pay off in the long run when each board member starts leaving each meeting with actionable takeaways. 

Crafting an effective board meeting takes equal parts careful planning, creative thinking, and on-the-fly adjustments to ensure you’re making the most of each gathering. As you plan your next meeting, keep these five specific elements in mind: 

  1. The purpose
  2. The agenda
  3. The environment
  4. The mood
  5. The takeaways

By optimising these five elements, you’ll start to understand how to run a board meeting that engages board members and makes progress toward your organisation’s goals, all while staying on schedule. Let’s explore each element more closely. 

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1. The Purpose

The meeting’s purpose will help you centre your agenda around a particular goal and stay on target. Without a defined purpose, your meeting runs the risk of rehashing previous conversations to no avail and wasting time. Your board members only gather every so often, so you must use that time wisely. 

For instance, let’s say you work with a nonprofit board, and the organisation is working on establishing plans for an upcoming capital campaign. You might plan a board meeting to assign roles for conducting major donor outreach during the campaign’s quiet phase. Other meeting goals might include voting on new policies, resolving past discussion items, or reviewing annual reports. 

Make sure you note the purpose directly within your meeting agenda so you can communicate it clearly to board members. 

2. The Agenda

A board meeting is nothing without a dynamic agenda. Your agenda acts as your guiding light, keeping you on track and letting your board members get back to their busy lives faster. 

Here are a few tips for creating an effective board meeting agenda, pulled from Boardable’s complete guide on the topic:

  • Include a clear sequence of events. The most effective board meetings I’ve been a part of include this series of events: call to order, roll call, approving the agenda, reviewing reports, discussing old and new business, and adjournment. This sequence ensures that you hit all of the important items and maintain decorum by sticking to established procedures. 
  • Create a time frame for each discussion item. Include specific minute limits for each item, such as 5 minutes for routine items and 30 minutes for larger discussion items. This helps you move through less-important to do’s and give more crucial items the attention they deserve.
  • Prioritise substantive topics. On a similar note, don’t let your meeting languish by spending too much time on the small details. Keep the central meeting focused on topics that affect and involve the largest number of people.
  • Leave time for gathering board members’ input. Don’t conclude your meeting without asking if board members have any remaining questions, comments, or concerns. This ensures everyone has an opportunity to speak. 

As an executive director or board administrator, it’s your job to prep the agenda and ensures all board members have a copy before the meeting kicks off. This extra preparation will help all board members feel more organised and help them gather their thoughts before the meeting. 

3. The Environment

When you think about the meeting environment, your mind probably jumps, first and foremost, to the venue. Certainly, you’ll require a large enough room to hold all of your board members and account for any social distancing requirements. And, you’ll want to meet in a central location, whether that’s your organisation’s headquarters or a local community building. 

But the idea of environment encompasses more than just the physical setting. The lighting, seating arrangement, and availability of refreshments all can impact the way your board members feel and interact in your meeting space. Let’s take a deep dive into each of these aspects: 

  • The lighting. Warm, soft lighting can help members feel more relaxed. However, you don’t want them feeling so relaxed that they start to get sleepy or lose focus. On the other hand, bright lighting can help members remain alert, but it has the potential to become grating after a while. Strike a balance between these two sides of the spectrum when possible. Plenty of natural light from a window can help, too.
  • The seating arrangement. If the seats are all lined up in rows facing a front podium, your board members will spend a lot of time speaking to the back of each other’s heads. Consider adjusting seats to form a circle around a large table, if possible, to allow board members to interact face to face.
  • Refreshments. Depending on what time of day you’re hosting your meeting, board members might appreciate a small table of refreshments. You can help board members perk up with coffee and doughnuts during a morning meeting or iced tea and cookies for an afternoon meeting.  

Even when you’re hosting virtual board meetings, the meeting environment comes into play.. Set virtual meeting guidelines requesting that board members tune in from a quiet spot with minimal distractions when possible. This could be a home office, local library study room, or any other private location. 

If your organisation’s facilities aren’t equipped to handle the type of in-person or hybrid meeting you want to hold, you may even choose to book a special external board room space. There are plenty of well-lit, spacious, and versatile meeting spaces available, likely right within your own community or nearby. Platforms like Spacehuntr are built to help connect boards with effective meeting spaces to hold productive gatherings. 

Ultimately, the environment you create for your board meetings can have a large impact on how members feel when in the room. Your board members are the target audience you’re trying to engage in your meetings, and you know them best. Think about the types of meeting environments that would engage them most effectively and act accordingly.  

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4. The Mood

The energy your board members bring to each meeting can have a major impact on how much you’re able to get done. If your board members seem distracted, listless, or stressed, that means it’s your job to re-engage them with a variety of strategies, including ones like:

  • Ask thoughtful questions to spark discussion. If a board member brings up a concern or conflicting opinion, ask them to thoroughly explain their position on the issue so that all members can discuss and form a consensus. 
  • Stick to your agenda and move on once you’ve reached the time limit for each discussion item. You can always return to unfinished items at the next meeting. Create a parking lot so that you can table any interesting but non-urgent topics for later discussion. 
  • Open the meeting with a (very brief) icebreaker activity or have board members share personal or professional good news. Your board members’ time is valuable, and you don’t want to bog down your meeting with too much social time. But leaving a small amount of time for socializing can help board members feel more relaxed and grow interpersonal relationships. 

It’s not realistic to assume all board members will be firing on all cylinders at every board meeting. It’s helpful to have these strategies in your pocket in case you need to take specific actions to lighten the mood or get the meeting back on track. 

5. The Takeaways 

Your board members should all leave the meeting with clear takeaways in mind. Even if the takeaway is “stay the course” or “hold for further instructions,” each member should know what they should be focusing on or completing in the interim before the next meeting. 

MemberClicks’ guide to meeting takeaways describes these meeting takeaways as some of the most important:

  • Status updates on important or large-scale discussion items or projects
  • A deeper understanding of a complex or new topic
  • Answers to any lingering questions
  • The date and time of your next meeting

Leaving with concrete takeaways in mind ensures that every board member sees each meeting as necessary and useful. Plus, it helps set up your subsequent meetings for success because everyone will have “done their homework” before each meeting. 

Wrapping Up

When you think carefully about these five elements while planning your board gatherings, you can craft more productive and useful meetings that make the most of your board’s time together. This ultimately benefits your organization as a whole, since your board helps drive your mission and vision forward. Better board engagement means more tangible progress made for your mission. Happy planning!

Jeb Banner
Jeb Banner

Jeb is the founder and CEO of Boardable, a board management software provider for mission-driven boards. He is also the founder of two non-profits, The Speak Easy and Musical Family Tree, as well as a board member of United Way of Central Indiana and ProAct. Jeb is based in Indianapolis, Indiana.

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