The cold open works for Saturday Night Live, not so much for a nonprofit board meeting. Isn’t it respectful of board members’ time to launch directly into the business at hand? Even though it may seem that way, I’m not so sure. 

Nonprofit boards are fueled by many things. Most notably, of course, is an individual director’s connection to the mission. And, effective, thriving nonprofit organizations are led by board members who are committed partners in their leadership and governance roles. To be successful in this endeavor, board members need to trust each other. And, to build trust, they need to know each other. 

My observations, based on attending hundreds of board meetings as a consultant and a board member, suggest that board members tend to arrive ‘just in time’ for board meetings that go straight to business. The push to be efficient may diminish board members’ connection to their board buddies and impact their chance to enjoy the camaraderie of the board room. It bypasses acknowledging that everyone is back together to lead the organization. 

So, let’s imagine ways to foster trust, collegiality, and a companionable atmosphere:

  • Have a meal together, whether supplied by the nonprofit or BYO, if a board meeting takes place over a mealtime. (And please don’t get me started about the perils of ‘hangry’ board members.) As board members are nourished, their relationships to each other and the organization are nurtured.

  • Begin the meeting with a true welcome statement, rather than jumping directly into the agenda. It is always appropriate for a board chair to look around the table, make eye contact with board members, and express how good it is to be together again doing the work of the organization.

  • Go around the table so each board member can share something personal that happened since the last meeting related to the organization or in general. Practices that promote ways for board members to learn more about each other promote bonding and build trust. 

Ensuring ways to build rapport increases the opportunity to get to know one’s colleagues. It boosts the satisfaction and cordiality that can so enrich the board experience. With the sense of friendliness that accompanies teamwork – and a board is a team – nonprofits reduce the risk of alienating some directors. Board members are less likely to put distance between themselves and the organization when board meetings are framed as welcoming and open, and the members know their colleagues. 

Next time you attend a nonprofit board meeting, take a moment to evaluate the feeling and flow. Make your voice heard and suggest changes to support an atmosphere that fosters connection, which is in everyone’s best interest, board member and nonprofit.

Parts of this post first appeared on the Association for Consultants to Nonprofits website in November 2019.