The problem of the incredible shrinking board

You know the scenario. As the clock ticks down on a board meeting, seats begin to empty. No matter the announced ending time, there are always members who need (or choose) to leave early.  A faithful remnant holds on to the finish line. And should a vote be required, fingers cross in hopes of a quorum.

In the spirit of transparency, I confess to an obsession on this point. I try never to exit a board meeting prior to adjournment, even it means staying over an extra night.  Looking back, I can think of just a handful of early departures in my 30 years as a member of one board or another. My governance peers could/can count on me to be there to the end of meetings.

Which explains why, as a board chair, I struggle to respond charitably to early leavers.  Granted, this isn’t the biggest problem facing nonprofits these days, but it bothers me nonetheless. And based on conversations with other chairs, I’m not alone in wondering how to reduce shrinkage within the ranks as meetings wind down.  (Yes, we do understand the concept of extenuating circumstances.)


As I see it, there are three options from which board chairs can choose:

  1. Ignore the end-of-meeting exodus, plow on with  business as usual even as the room empties, and hope board members get the message and stick around to the end at the next meeting.
  2. Move all the important stuff to the beginning of the meeting, leave the fluff (if there is such) to the last hour, and in so doing, let early departers know you got their message.
  3. Move most of the important stuff to the top of the agenda (a good idea even if accommodating board member’s exit patterns isn’t an issue). Then, when board member evaluation rolls around, remind the folks on your board that full participation by the full board through the full meeting is essential.

(In case my introductory comments left doubt as to which of the three  options I see as the right way to go, it’s the third.)

Most boards are together less than 40 hours a year, which makes every minute precious. Quality board work requires that all members are present and engaged from gavel up at the welcome, to gavel down at adjournment.

For the good of the organization, the sake of the work, and the morale of the board, early departures should be the exception. That’s my rule.


  1. And then there is the issue of regular attendance—made even worse when power to influence is disproportionate to presence, giving and participation.

  2. You’re right, Mark. It is troubling when board leaders won’t confront an absentee board member for fear of losing a significant gift to the organization.

What's your take on this topic?

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