To Meet or Not to Meet? That's Not The Question.
A while back ago a fellow governance specialist asked me over lunch: "So....where do you stand on the whole 'how many meetings are too many meetings' question?" I raised an eyebrow for a moment in response to a question I was quite familiar with but which I had also found to be perplexing.
Those who work closely with boards and other
governing bodies, including governance managers, CEOs and board leaders, tend to ask the "how many meetings" question. It's rooted in the cyclical and often repetitive nature of board meetings - a process where the amount of work put in can sometimes be disproportionate to actual outcomes. And yet, board meetings are an indispensable function of board governance that have a major impact on a nonprofits' activities. Clearly, the question has to be worthwhile if it might mean optimizing performance for the board and organization as a whole.
The converse question is easy to answer: Q: How many meetings are too few? A: Any number of meetings below what is required in your bylaws! But to say definitively how many meetings a board should hold beyond minimum requirements can't be quantified by leading practices. Deciding an appropriate length and frequency of board meetings isn't based on a magic number or formula. It's wholly dependent on a variety of circumstances that drive each nonprofit's governance system differently.
So, if the question "are we meeting too often?" keeps coming up, finding a proper answer is going to mean asking more questions. Here are, in my opinion, some of the right questions to ask:
1) Is there enough capacity to appropriately plan, prepare for and support every board meeting?
If you are a CEO or board leader and you hear staff express concerns about too many meetings, it's probably a good time to pause and ask whether the time and resources required to hold a year's worth of board meetings might be stretching your team thin. The necessary contributions of staff - whether they directly support the board or not - should not be underestimated when discerning whether employees have enough time to both prepare materials for a meeting and carry out work that comes out of those meetings.
On the other hand if board members are expressing the same concerns, it could be a sign that board member engagement is waning, possibly due to burnout. Like staff, board members are required to put a lot of planning and preparation into meetings and a high frequency can be exhausting, especially for volunteers with day jobs and real lives. It's probably a sign that more efficient meeting practices are needed.
2) Can we distinguish between our regular and special meetings?
Sometimes when boards find themselves meeting often it's in the absence of a previously established meeting schedule - best established one to two years in advance. The meetings that tend to make it on that schedule are considered regular meetings, which in parliamentary terms are routine and held at a set frequency. Special meetings are not previously scheduled but are called to address a specific issue or purpose. The bylaws will usually specify when and how a special meeting can be noticed and called, sometimes restricting the business that can be conducted at such a meeting. If your board meets often and can't distinguish between regular and special meetings, it may be a sign that the purposes of those meetings are continuously unclear. Boards that aren't grasping why they meet should focus some attention on establishing intentional meeting norms and practices that help to draw appropriate distinctions.
3) Is the board doing what it needs to do during meetings or is it spinning its wheels?
In the same spirit of establishing intentional norms and practices, boards should be introspective about what they are accomplishing during their meetings. This is best accomplished through a board meeting assessment - usually conducted at every meeting - allowing the board to assess in the moment whether business was conducted efficiently or if there are opportunities for improvement. Board members that feel satisfied with their productivity are unlikely to feel like meetings are a waste of time. However, if board members report that discussions are unwieldy and aren't getting them anywhere, it's probably a sign that meetings could be more efficient and economical.
4) Could the board legally do some of its work outside of meetings?
If the board finds itself meeting frequently to address one or two issues at a time, it may be worth exploring whether it might have the option of conducting electronic meetings or engage in online voting to dispose of certain business. This can be a good solution for addressing pro forma or one-off matters that are not controversial and don't require much deliberation beyond an up-or-down vote. That said, boards should always seek legal advice before adopting such processes to avoid inadvertently violating their bylaws or respective corporate statutes.
5) Is there work the board could be delegating to others in between meetings?
Just about every corporate governance system will have some structure of delegations in place - whether it is through bylaws or board resolutions. At some point, the board is going to delegate its authority to an executive directors, an officer or a committee to carry out certain duties and functions more efficiently and effectively. One of the most common delegations is that of the Executive Committee, usually a committee of the board (typically the officers), that is empowered to make governance decisions in between meetings of the full board. While Executive Committees are usually best when convened sparingly, they are useful to have in place when decisions need to be made quickly in response to emergent issues.
Where I ultimately land on this looming question is that asking whether the board should meet more or less often presents kind of a false choice. Boards are ultimately going to meet when they need to and those needs are not always possible to predict. The key consideration here is whether the board is making the most of its meetings and has sufficient systems and delegations in place so that convening the board doesn't become burdensome over time.
So, my answer to my colleague over lunch amounted to that inevitable cliche that governance consultants frequently fall back on: "It depends!" But further than that, my answer was really to ask more nuanced questions about the governance needs of a nonprofit. Because chances are when you ask the deeper questions, you will find richer solutions.
Rachel Miller-Bleich, MA, CAE, a nonprofit governance consultant, is Principal and Owner of MillerBleich Consulting, LLC. Learn more at www.millerbleichconsulting.com