Running a Board Meeting: Notes on Efficiency

Last week in this space, I wrote about what I considered to be the ideal size for boards of directors of most orchestras, particularly our smaller and mid-sized orchestras. But that size (roughly 25-35 people) presents potential problems unless the board is operated effectively. This week I'd like to offer some reflections on board operations, drawn from over four decades of experience. I became a member of the Board of Directors of the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra in 1967, and there has been virtually no time in my life since that year when I have not been a member of a nonprofit board, usually music-related. And since 1981, I have managed institutions where I reported to a board. So I think I bring a fairly broad and perhaps unique perspective.
One of my great predecessors at the League of American Orchestras was Ralph Black, and when he headed the League he wrote "Black Notes," which consisted of brief, punchy bits of advice on all matters orchestral. I'm going to adopt his style for this blog, in order to get a lot of points into a fairly brief space.

• Full board meetings every month are an inefficient use of time. Board meetings should be no more frequent than every other month, so they can be adequately prepared (no staff can prepare for a meaningful meeting every month). Meetings of 90 to 120 minutes every other month are more effective than meetings of 60 to 90 minutes every month.

• Committee reports that do not require voting action should be emailed to board members ahead of time, bundled into one motion. (This is called a "consent agenda" because the board consents to accept all the reports, and the minutes, having committed to reading them ahead of time.) Delivering committee reports orally is generally of interest to no one other than the person reading the report.

• Even the finance report should be brief, unless there is a significant issue that needs exploration. The board must trust its finance committee to oversee the financial picture. The finance committee should give a full but concise picture, including year-end projections and an explanation of major variances.

• The bulk of each meeting should be a prepared discussion on a single topic. The staff and the relevant board committee are tasked with preparing the discussion, doing necessary research (perhaps providing benchmarks against other well-performing orchestral organizations), raising the issues that need discussion and the problems that need addressing. This engages every member of the board in meaningful, thoughtful discussion, rather than having mind-numbing reports read to them. And it takes advantage of all of the intelligence in the room.

• These single-topic discussions should involve, on a regular basis, breaking the board into small workgroups. Each can explore a different aspect of the topic, or the same aspect--each might come to different recommendations. These small group discussions should use the majority of the meeting time, perhaps an hour of it or more, with each table reporting back its recommendations. You can do the math. If you have 30 people in a room and devote even a full hour to one topic, everyone gets two minutes to speak! And as soon as someone speaks for four minutes, everyone else's time goes down. You cannot get real work done under such conditions. This is the reason that many recommend smaller boards: It is difficult to accomplish a lot in a 30-person meeting. But the truth is that you can, if you manage that meeting properly and use the small-group technique. Six people around a table having an hour to explore one question gives you different math--each person gets ten minutes to speak!

• How do you pick your topics? Simple: What are the big issues facing the organization? The executive director and board chair should do this work together, perhaps planning out the year ahead of time or perhaps reacting to changes in the environment. How might we improve our annual fund contributions from individuals? How might we improve our subscription sales? Our single-ticket sales? How might we make a more effective board? How might that board run? What should our orchestra's relationship with the whole community be? How much of our resources should we invest in education? What is the purpose of those education programs? Are the orchestra's artistic programs vital or are they routine? How might we vary the way we present concerts? Should we begin a planned giving program? Should we think about our endowment and its policies? I guarantee that you will never run out of topics around which to have meaningful, engaging discussions--discussions that make board members feel truly involved in shaping their orchestra, and that will take advantage of all of the intelligence that often goes unused on a board.

• If the board is only discussing one topic at a meeting, and meetings are every other month, what happens to everything else?  This is why you must have active committees, and why those committees (along with the management staff) must have the authority to make decisions in their areas, informing the full board of the important ones in the committee reports (that are not read aloud!).

• I promise you that a board operated in a manner reasonably close to what I am recommending here will be a vital, engaged, committed board. Which I think is the goal of every orchestra.
May 1, 2009 3:37 PM | | Comments (1)

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Dear Henry:

Thank you for this summation. This is the kind of structure toward which we are moving our Board meetings. The consent calendar model was adopted earlier this season. The challenge I have found is that committee chairs are extremely busy, and frequently don't send me their reports far enough in advance. As a result, I struggle to compile them and email them out to the entire Board in time for them to read in advance of the Board meeting.

We also consolidated all of our finance reports into a single "dashboard report" so that Board members can see at a single glance how we are progressing on the various revenue campaigns, earned and contributed.

We have not yet gone to the every-other-month structure but I'm hopeful we'll get there next season. The information above is extremely helpful, though, and I will be sure to pass it along to my Governance Committee.

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This page contains a single entry by on the record published on May 1, 2009 3:37 PM.

Ideal Board Size: A Question of Balance was the previous entry in this blog.

Experimenting with "Romantic Excess" in New Hampshire is the next entry in this blog.

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