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Case Studies from Effective Leadership for Nonprofit Organizations

[Image: Book cover]Thomas Wolf writes: "This is the sixth blog post drawn from my book, Effective Leadership for Nonprofit Organizations: How Executive Directors and Boards Work Together. This one is called: "Oh No, Not Another Meeting!" It offers insights on how an Executive Director and a Board Chair can plan and execute effective and productive meetings that will ensure that the necessary business of an organization is carried out while leaving everyone satisfied that their time was well spent. 

Sally was a first-time executive director at a small nonprofit organization. She was relatively young, and due to her lack of experience, she felt she should be deferential to her board. When it came to board meetings, she attended only when invited and her only involvement in meeting planning was planning the refreshments. Meetings themselves were often excruciating, and she always obsessed about them for days in advance. She would receive the agendas and worry how the votes would go. Often in the meetings, discussion was extended and contentious, and sometimes an item would have to be tabled as trustees left the meeting early and there was no longer a quorum for a legal vote. After the meetings ended, the president would invite any trustees who remained to go out for dinner and leave the controversy behind. Sally was invited to these dinners but was often too upset to eat.

It was in her second job as executive director that Sally gained some perspective and knowledge. The board president was an older, experienced trustee and they consulted regularly. He told Sally she was always expected at board meetings unless the group went into executive session, which they rarely did. He believed in focusing the board on the things that, as he put it, were "under our purview" and leaving to staff those decisions that were more of an everyday nature. "Boards spend entirely too much time getting into the nitty-gritty. It is not their job. We have legal and fiduciary responsibilities, and we need to focus there first. Then we need to develop policy and think about the long-term future. We are not here to design programs."

At first, Sally was concerned that if too much was left to the staff, there would be inadequate trustee involvement and buy-in and a lack of knowledge or commitment. This turned out not to be the case. Ed, the board president, believed that trustees should be deeply involved where they had an interest and were willing to spend time but that this should happen at the committee level and with guidance of staff. "Committees are where the real work will get done, and by having trustees involved, the board will feel reassured that the staff is not going off half-cocked. When something comes up for full board approval, it should often be at the recommendation of a committee, and the committee chair should, in most cases, make the motion."

But trustee approval, it turned out, could happen at two levels. All committees shared their work with a coordinating body—the executive committee—that in turn was empowered in many cases to approve their work without it needing to come before the full board for a vote. When the executive committee felt a case to be sufficiently important, they would make a recommendation to place the item on the full board agenda. "By the time something gets to the full board," Ed pointed out, "it will have gone through two reviews and have a group of trustees ready to fight for it, if necessary. But I would never put anything on the agenda for a decision that was going to be controversial anyway. I would always test the waters first. Board meetings are not the place for divisive discussions."

As Sally and Ed continued their work together, she was amazed at how smoothly things went. Admittedly, the process was time-consuming. But board meetings were a breeze, and they always seemed to end when Ed's agenda said they would. She asked him how he knew how long a board meeting should be. "Like my college professor used to say when people asked him how long the term paper should be," he said, "long enough to cover the subject but not so long as to be boring. And frankly, any meeting longer than ninety minutes is boring by definition."

In Sally's earliest board meetings—the ones she dreaded—she noticed that a few people did most of the talking. That included her, since as executive director, she was the one who had most of the facts at her fingertips. Often she could sense that some people were bored. One of her trustees regularly drifted off to sleep. Ed's meetings were magical by comparison. Everyone participated and he would often ignore someone's raised hand in discussion in order to pick someone else who had been silent. Strangely, it did not seem to matter. The crucial information got shared.

Ed explained it this way. "I think of every board member who is attending as someone who should be heard at some point in the meeting. I know what their areas of interest are, so I know when to call on them. If things will require a more extensive presentation, I call trustees in advance and prepare them for the fact that I will be relying on them at a certain point in the meeting. They tend to stay more alert throughout the meeting that way. Some are responsible for presenting an entire agenda item. Others give a progress report on something that relates to an item we are discussing. I always consider it a failure if there is someone who has not said anything. Remember, as executive director and board president, you and I look good to the extent we get what we want without having to plead for it. Our silence should reflect confidence in the process."

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--© Thomas Wolf, from Effective Leadership for Nonprofit Organizations: How Executive Directors and Boards Work Together, Allworth Press, 2013. For single copies, go to For information on discounts on multiple copy orders, email or call This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.  (617-494-9300).