The Oak Life Journal
Sep | Oct 2021
The Orphanage Founder's Guide to:
The Board of Directors
"8 Tips for Successful Board Meetings"
By Cameron Talbot • 10 min read
In our previous edition, I wrote about how to form a board of directors from the perspective of an orphanage director or founder. We discussed how to choose the members, what to look for in a potential board member, and pitfalls to watch out for! You can read that article HERE.
We want to continue this conversation today, though, because once you have your board members picked out, the real work begins. How does a good board begin great action? Through its board meetings.
But running a board meeting can seem overwhelming. You are creating and hosting the arena where big decisions are made, where the insurmountable problems are chipped away, and where like-minded professionals become a working wheel on behalf of the children you all love.
And yet, sometimes, board meetings can feel like a complete waste of time. A board meeting gone wrong is one that ends in unresolved arguments, inaction, disconnect and an absolute confusion on how to best proceed with the day-to-day life of your orphanage.
So, today, I would like to offer you 8 tips on how to get the most out of your board meetings. These 8 tips will help propel your meetings from ineffective get-togethers, to powerhouses of change.
Tip #1. Write/Review Your Bylaws
Many countries require you to write and submit bylaws when forming your orphanage. One of the items that should be included in your bylaws are the guidelines used to manage your board of directors.
I think the importance of written guidelines is easily overlooked, and many organizations would be hard pressed to even remember what’s written in their bylaws.
However, whether they are stipulated in your governmental paperwork or simply written for the board’s personal use, your bylaws are a must have. Every board member should be aware of the written guidelines before taking a chair.
• How many times per year will the board meet?
• What are the responsibilities of the general (voting) members?
• What special roles will be filled? (You should at least include a president, secretary and treasurer)
• What are the responsibilities of special members?
• How long is a board member’s term?
• Will there be a probationary period for new board members?
• What set of conversational rules will you use? (Examples include Robert’s Rules of Order, Martha’s Rules of Order, The Standard Code of Parliamentary Procedure)
Any additional stipulations or framework you want to add are completely up to you and your board!
If this is the first time your meeting structure is written, make sure your board takes a vote on its contents. If this has already been written, make sure your board of directors has access to view the bylaws, and new members are given a copy to review before they participate.
Tip #2. Balance Your Tone
You will need to decide how to navigate the balance between relaxed and/or personal conversation with professional and strategic discourse.
Will you allow conversation to flow naturally during the meeting, or will you insist on using strict business language to maximize effectiveness? Will you allow for interpersonal discussion time throughout, block off a space at the beginning or end, or remove it altogether? You set the tone for your meetings, and the tone will drive everything to either succeed or fail.
But the meeting tone is not so easily decided.
I come from the U.S., which has an efficiency-driven culture. Like most U.S. nonprofits, our organization uses Robert’s Rules of Order to conduct its meetings, which effectively strips the meeting of any conversation that isn’t business and strategy related.
We get things done. Then we leave.
However, over time, the careful decision has been made to allow some back and forth discussion and the occasional personal statement to fill in the gaps between all the “rules” and “order.” Why? Because the balance between business and relationship is going to be different across organizations, and even further varied across nations.
The members of Oak Life’s board (and myself) are more relaxed and able to participate effectively when there is a specific degree of informal speech. It works for us.
Your task is to find what works for you.
Some cultures, like many in Europe and Japan, are more inclined to remove informal conversation and stick to procedural speech.
Other cultures, like many in Latin America and Africa, are relationship-driven and will tend towards more interpersonal conversation and storytelling to rules and parliamentary procedure.
But I say you have to find a balance, because at the end of the day, a board is only as good as its ability to stick together (relationship) and do its job (business). And that sweet spot will probably look like some combination of the two forms of communicating.
So, to decide the tone of your meetings, ask yourselves the following questions—
• Does the language used allow everyone to feel comfortable to think and share?
• When our meetings conclude, are there clear, specific plans and decisions made?
• When our meetings conclude, does everyone leave satisfied and content with how things were handled?
Answering these questions should help you begin to navigate the balance of tone.
On the one hand, your tone is only effective if everyone is comfortable and content. On the other hand, your tone is only effective if your meetings produce specific results.
Somewhere between those two things is the tone for your meeting.
Tip #3. Review Your Mission Statement
At least once per year (and perhaps every meeting), you should walk your board through a review of the orphanage’s mission statement. Even if your board can recite your mission by heart (which, ideally, they can), it should still be reviewed.
Because your mission statement embodies the purpose, strategy and emotion of your orphanage, as well as the connecting principle that drew everyone to your board in the first place—their love and concern for vulnerable children.
Reviewing this statement lays the mental groundwork upon which your members can make excellent decisions.
Reminding them of the purpose and strategy will help eliminate any suggestions or conversation that would lead the orphanage astray.
Reminding them of the emotion that unites them will encourage their drive to bring their best ideas, attitude and energy.
This practice is often utilized at the beginning of the meeting. You can review it in a basic way, by asking what the mission statement is, writing it on the board, or repeating it as a group.
You can also get creative with your mission review by turning it into a game. Perhaps you print out the statement, cut out the words, and have your members unscramble and reorganize the statement. Maybe you hand out prizes!
Tip #4. Use an Agenda
An agenda is crucial to the effectiveness of a board meeting. Your agenda is a written document containing the “road map” of where the conversation will go. It is written before the meeting takes place, and copies are usually given to each board member. It can be as simple as a list of topics you need to cover, or complex, following a specific structure and including the major motions to be proposed.
Regardless of how simple or complex you choose to make the agenda, this simple tool will do several things for you—
First, as mentioned, it works like a “road map.” When every member has a copy of the agenda, everyone should notice when the conversation begins to drift away into more irrelevant (or just less important) subjects. It helps to prevent detours. An easy, “Let’s get back to our agenda,” saves the value of everyone’s time, and can refocus the conversation.
Secondly, it serves as a reminder of the important issues. Without an agenda, it can be quite easy in the moment to forget every topic that should be discussed. Your agenda is a “to do” list that can be checked off as decisions are made.
If you would like to see an example of a relatively simple meeting agenda, here is one of Oak Life’s recent documents: Oak Life’s meeting agenda
Tip #5. Propose a Solution First
This tip is taken straight out of Robert’s Rules of Order. Now, perhaps you don’t use Robert’s Rules. That’s alright! I still put this to you as a tip, because it is a fascinating little trick that can drastically change how effective a conversation is.
In an informal discussion, we discuss problems to find solutions. In a board meeting, it can actually be more effective to reverse that order.
Here’s what I mean—
Let’s say your orphanage is struggling for finances. You’ve had informal discussions with the board members about this, and tossed ideas around. Perhaps you are looking for ways to supplement your food sources and cut back on costs. When it comes time for a meeting, instead of posing to the board, “So lately we’ve been struggling with our finances, what should we do?” you can instead lead with an idea you’ve had in the form a proposal, “I propose that we use the plot of land behind the main house as a vegetable garden to supplement our food costs.”
Once the proposal is made, members can place their focus on that solution, instead of the problem. They might agree upon it in a vote. They might work on adjusting it, “The proposal is to use half of the plot of land behind the main house, and set aside the money from our upcoming fundraiser to buy the seeds…”. Or they might decide some different proposals need to be tried first, and vote yours down.
Why does this work?
Well, primarily, it encourages board members to problem solve and have the lengthy ”we’ve got a problem, how do we fix it?” conversations outside of the board meeting. Thus, it transforms your meetings into discussion on decisive action. Instead of conversation about what’s wrong, you host decisions on potential solutions.
Tip #6. Write It All Down
Which brings me straight into the next tip—write it all down! Known as your “meeting notes,” writing down the key points of your board meeting is a crucial component in keeping your daily activities and your executive decisions in line with one another.
What do I mean by that?
I’m referring mostly to your orphanage’s ability to follow through. Board members take the time to meet, discuss and make decisions on important issues. If no one follows through on those decisions, though, then the entire activity is a waste of everyone’s time and effort.
Writing down what happens in your board meeting prevents members from forgetting the issues, past, present or future, and their related decisions. In this way, those making the executive decisions remain aware of them in detail, and a certain level of accountability can be held to the orphanage’s daily activities.
Good practice is to read the notes from the previous meeting before the start of a new meeting, so everyone is reminded of the state of affairs.
What should you write down in your meeting notes?
You should include—
• Date and time
• Who was present
• Topics of discussion and the key points made
• Any proposals (motions) put to the group
• How each member voted
Tip #7. Delegate, Delegate, Delegate
In Part One of this “Guide to the Board of Directors,” we discussed how to choose the members. I emphasized the need to choose individuals who bring a unique, valuable skillset to the orphanage. This might be fundraising, child care, administration experience, etc.
With these skilled members on your board, your next task is to delegate projects to them.
This is what a good board is for!
Imagine you just made the decision to “use half of the plot of land behind the main house to grow a vegetable garden, and set aside the money from our upcoming fundraiser to buy the seeds…”. That’s a fine decision, but who is going to handle that large project? You probably have enough on your plate!
Immediately, your next move should be to ask the board members for help. Perhaps the individual with administration experience would be the best-suited to draw up a plan, organize the labor and find the most cost-effective plant choices. Consider offering the project to them, given their specific expertise.
“Many hands make light work,” and your board of directors should absolutely be offering their hands to the work of managing and growing the orphanage. After all, they care deeply about the well-being of your home’s children.
Tip #8. Encourage Your Board
The last tip is a simple one. Encourage your board of directors.
As the leader, part of your responsibility is to create a positive atmosphere that is conducive to growth and success. As previously discussed, “balancing your tone” is one way of doing this. Boosting morale amongst the directors is another. This implies giving proper care and empowerment to each member.
And there are several great ways you can do this—
First, show your appreciation. Never assume they know how grateful you are. Demonstrate it! This might mean offering a sincere, “Thank you, everyone. None of this would be possible without you. Good work!” at the end of every meeting. Or, you could individualize your thanks by taking each member out to lunch occasionally.
Second, show that you value their opinions. In the midst of a meeting, many ideas and proposals are being tossed around. Take a moment to praise good ideas with a simple, “What a great suggestion!” For those members who seem more hesitant to offer their thoughts, make a point to create space for them to contribute. This might sound like, “Hold on, everyone. I know Mariela has experience in this area. Mariela, what do you think?”
Lastly, celebrate their efforts. One of the most touching moments I have seen during a board meeting was when a previous president was being replaced by a new one. The new chairperson created a significant moment to praise the previous president. He spoke to the other members, reminding them of just how incredible the president had been, and opened the floor for others to show their appreciation.
But a board member shouldn’t have to be leaving in order to receive public praise. You can initiate a moment like the one mentioned above on many occasions. You can recognize a member’s hard work on a fundraiser, celebrate an anniversary of their participation, or any other special moment.
The point is simply to be an encouragement. And it goes a long way!
So concludes our 8 tips on hosting a great board meeting. I hope these suggestions are an aid to you and your members. If you have any other tips or tricks that you have found helpful in your board journey, or have questions, share in the comments!