Strategies for avoiding meddling by meeting

As part of prepping for a workshop with a nonprofit board that’s new to me, I asked the chair to name his must-be-addressed topic for the day. Almost before the question was out of my mouth, he shot back his answer. “I need help in structuring meetings so that the board stays out of administrative detail.” He went on to describe the tedium of agendas dominated by staff reports and the frustration of never enough time to focus on the future.

If misery loves company, this chair has it – in droves. Or so suggests a long-running exchange over at the BoardSource LinkedIn discussion group. The conversation began in June 2011 with the question, “Does anyone have an example of a board agenda that helps steer the conversation towards strategy and away from operations? A year later that starting query continues to generate comments (more than 600 to date).

buried_in_questions_11662Not that everything posted to the discussion is worth repeating. In fact, some of the advice is less than best practice – at least as I preach it.

For example, I’d be happier if no one jumped at the offers of “exemplary” agendas. But there are plenty of takers.

So much for organizational uniqueness. In my experience, copy cat agendas and strategic issues don’t mix.

And then there are the advocates (too many, in my view) for meetings by stop watch – of attaching strict time limits to agenda items and cutting off discussion when the clock runs out.

So much for tackling the tough stuff. In my experience, that doesn’t happen in 10 minutes or less.


Despite a few duds, there are good ideas aplenty among the hundreds of comments posted by the BoardSource group members, including:

The Executive Committee decides the specific topic of conversation for strategic planning and the CEO adds that topic to the information on the agenda so board members can come prepared with thoughts for the discussion. Tying the board’s agenda to the organization’s strategic plan is a sure way to stay on track.

The board should adopt a procedure whereby a trustee may safely call to question whether a topic or dialogue is crossing the line into administrative territory. Consistent board training really helps in this area.

Instead of merely listing topics for the agenda, for the strategic items, it can be more powerful to list the desired outcome of the discussion — e.g., decide which programs to prune next year, brainstorm ideas on xyz or hiring priorities/criteria for new ED.

Try a consent agenda. You’ll move quickly through the mundane organizational items then have time for the more exciting strategic discussions.

The most important way to keep the board away from operational issues is to have a chairperson who is competent and confident in guarding the meeting agenda.

Of all the wise counsel generated via the LinkedIn discussion, the most helpful to me was the reference to a great blog titled Meetings for Results.  It’s a wonderfully generous resource from the consulting firm of Brownfield & Lent. I encourage you to check it out – better yet, subscribe to it. The folks around your board table will thank you for doing so.

For more on the topic of board meetings and agendas, see:

Seven steps to a well-crafted meeting agenda

A five-step cure for boredom in the boardroom

The appropriately civil board


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