Staying Engaged with Remote Board Meetings


The ability to conduct a meeting by conference call is a godsend - especially for boards that aim to be more diverse and geographically balanced. Face-to-face meetings are important, but you will be hard pressed to find a nonprofit that doesn't accommodate distant board members by facilitating meetings (either partially or entirely) by phone or video conference. In some cases, it will be the only way for the board to do what needs to get done! 

Necessary though they may be, conference call meetings are also loaded with many practical challenges, especially when you can't see everybody (or anybody).  And believe it or not, adding video to the equation will not be much of an improvement if most board members flip their cameras off and proceed to multi-task their way through the proceedings. That may sound cynical, but I've seen it happen... many times. 

photo: ojoimages4 / adobe stock
As much as board chairs and CEOs like to use conference call meetings to dispose of business easily, I tend to wish they wouldn't occur so often. Because, unless the board has established clear expectations around how its members should engage and participate in remote meetings, passive listening will likely be the default mode and the meeting will suffer for it. Also, the basic legality of the meeting could be in jeopardy if certain technical details are not accounted for.

From a process perspective, conference call meetings need to be facilitated with the same (perhaps even more) rigor as a face-to-face meeting. Taking roll, establishing a quorum, facilitating discussion, handling motions - the board chair needs to be able to conduct those processes with the same degree of authority as if they were in the room. And, if at any point a member drops off the line and quorum is lost, the chair needs to know whether and how to adjust to keep the proceedings legal. Managing those details may seem like a pain, but they are the only way to ensure that remote meetings are properly managed and always above board. 

What's more, there's also the challenge of facilitating productive dialogue and deliberation without the benefit of being in the same room together. This is an area where video participation can help, but you will still miss the benefit of a live meeting where you could better control the environment and influence members' attention to the business at hand. So, how do you properly facilitate and manage group dynamics when the environmental factors inherent in conference meetings are getting in the way?

This is where I would argue that board chairs especially need to hone their skills in facilitation and meeting management! And while we live in an age where technology makes remote facilitation easier and more accessible - through a whole host of technological widgets and tools - the trick is to ensure those tools and resources are actually used and promote board member engagement. 

I hope boards that meet remotely with any degree of regularity take the time to institute their own standards and practices for the conduct of such meetings. Those practices should be aligned with relevant statutory and bylaws requirements pertaining to meetings. They could be adopted as special rules or merely memorialized in a governance manual, but the important thing is making sure any written standards seamlessly become part of the board's intentional meeting practices - in real space! 

How does your nonprofit's board approach holding meetings by phone or video conference? What are the biggest obstacles to making sure those meetings are engaging and conducted properly?


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Rachel Miller-Bleich, MA, CAE is a nonprofit governance consultant and owner of MillerBleich Consulting, LLC. To learn more, visit www.millerbleichconsulting.com.

© 2020 Rachel Miller-Bleich. All rights reserved. Permission granted to excerpt or reprint with attribution.

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