During his freshman orientation, my younger son was introduced to HALT – Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired – a stress management technique. For entering college students, it was supposed to help them increase self-awareness and understand what was going on with themselves and how this affected their interactions with roommates and others. It was geared to help them from becoming less pleasant versions of their normal selves.
HALT resonates with me. Especially regarding nonprofit boards and board meetings. After all, aren’t nonprofits better served by directors who function at their finest and highest levels?
Nourishing your board, both literally and figuratively, promotes effective leadership.
What time of day does your nonprofit board meet? If you are meeting after work, late afternoon through early evening, you are meeting at dinner time. Some of your board members may be truly hungry. If they have raced to the meeting from work, it is likely that they dropped everything and didn’t manage to snag a snack. In fact, did you ever mention in your board orientation for new members whether or not dinner would be served? Some board members may be expecting sustenance. Are you providing it?
Serve dinner (or lunch, or breakfast)! The cost is minimal compared to hungry board members who are distractedly thinking about what they will eat when they get home.
If you really can’t do this, at least encourage board members to bring their own food. Brown bagging is a viable option, especially for smaller, leaner organizations.
Yearning for Deeper Engagement
Board members may be searching for ways to better connect with their fellow board members. Eating together – however the food is provided — creates a social ritual through which they develop deeper mutual trust as they deliberate.
Your board members may also be hungry for more profound discussions. If your meetings routinely are retrospective in nature – listening to reports that recount what has already happened – board members may be waiting for meatier things to weigh in on.
Develop a dashboard to provide a succinct overview of the key metrics the board needs to know and monitor. A discussion to identify these may be a good way to begin to shift the meeting model. Once the dashboard is developed, monitoring of key metrics can be dispatched quickly, allowing the board to move on to more substantive, in-depth discussions.
Create an agenda that ensures that the board looks ahead and pursues strategic and generative conversations. Leave the routine aspects of the meeting till the end and allow time to ask and discuss big questions, questions that may make you uncomfortable. What is it that your organization really wants to accomplish? How can your organization change something? Tease yourselves into expanding your thinking by asking “what if” questions. Perhaps you will whet the board’s appetite for shifting the model of how you lead, letting committees do the work and make appropriate decisions (e.g., what should the centerpieces be for the gala?) while the board dares to contemplate alternative methods of funding your work, such as social enterprise or moving away from government funding.
If your organization has a strategic plan, it is another opportunity to begin to shift the conversation to weightier issues. Throughout the life of the plan the board should evaluate the priorities to be sure they are still accurate. As you implement your plan, what are you learning about your organization? Those you serve? The community within which you work?
Do you have a board member who tends to be negative? Suspicious? Has an attitude? Is simply disagreeable? One angry (and I’ve taken license here to define angry with a broad stroke) board member can change the dynamic around the table. The interrupter, the grandstander, the absentee who hijacks a meeting to catch up on what they missed, the one who pushes a personal agenda – and other less than ideal board members – make it tough for the board to govern effectively.
How long do you wait to do something before the situation gets toxic? If the real-time, gentle admonitions – such as noting that it is time to move on to the next agenda item, thereby cutting off an unnecessary, extended discussion – haven’t improved the dynamic, it is time to set up a private meeting to discuss the behavior. The board chair and the chief executive need to handle this in a forthright manner. As awkward as this may be, left unaddressed, this situation may lead to a dysfunction. Other board members may distance themselves from the group out of frustration. The organization may be held hostage if board leadership opts to ignore the angry board member.
Sometimes board members may seem to be keeping themselves apart. This could be because they are loners by nature, or because they don’t know their colleagues. If your board is lacking camaraderie, it may be time to examine whether board leadership has done enough to foster a sense of collegiality among directors.
One way to inspire connection among directors is to bring them on as a class rather than sprinkled throughout the year. It actually is lonely to be the only new person sitting at the board table not knowing the context of a discussion or the ramifications of an impending vote. Bringing on a class of directors, onboarding/orienting them, and welcoming them into the organization helps them feel and become part of the group.
As I noted in the “Hungry” section above, gathering before the board meeting to eat together is valuable social time that enables directors to get to know each other better. Short activities at the beginning of each meeting that are geared to build rapport also facilitate board members’ sense of community, as do annual retreats and other well-planned opportunities to get to know each other. Intentionally creating ways for everyone to voice an opinion gives way to honest, cordial deliberations that put what is best for the organization at the forefront.
Boards make better decisions when there is a high level of trust among the members.
Board members may be tired for several reasons. Board meetings lacking structure or with unmoderated discussions may sometimes go on too long. Board members are rightfully tired after a day at work and a boring meeting. Put important items first so that significant discussions take place when board members are fresher. Manage the time well so meetings don’t become endless – start on time, keep to the agenda, be respectful of your volunteers. Use the agenda and allot time for certain items. While this doesn’t mean cutting off meaningful discussion, it does mean managing discussions to keep them on point and ensuring broad participation.
Also tired is the board member who has been on the board too long and is truly weary. Long-tenured board members may manifest their fatigue in disenchantment, absenteeism, or rejecting new ideas – even becoming angry individuals who can sabotage the meeting, as noted in “Angry” above. They may be unwilling or resistant to taking on responsibility because they are drained and can’t imagine doing one more thing. This is why term limits are important for nonprofit boards of directors.
At your next board meeting, look around. What’s the vibe?
How can you change things on an individual level? Bring a snack. Take a deep breath and shake off your day. Sit next to someone you don’t know well. Consider new ways to invigorate your connection to the organization.
How can you change things within the organization? Commit to shifting focus to the scarier aspects of leadership. Articulate expectations for serving on the board. Practice good governance. Renew your leadership regularly.
Look inward to determine how your nonprofit’s board of directors can be its best at holding your organization in trust for future generations and facilitate change to do so.