The Art of the Effective Board Meeting


Meetings of an institution’s Board of Trustees are the context in which most of the Governance work of a museum typically takes place.  Yet how many times have Trustees and staff left a Board meeting thinking that the past hour was largely a waste of time that accomplished very little.  Following are some ideas for making your Board meetings more effective:

The Real Work Happens Before the Board Meeting Begins:  What takes place prior to the actual Board meeting is essential to having a successful meeting.  Here’s a list of work that, if done prior to the meeting, can make your meeting more effective:

  1. Do the Heavy Lifting at Prior Board Committee Meetings – Whether it’s review of the proposed operating budget for the coming year, consideration of prospective Trustee candidates, or discussion of a particularly difficult policy issue, prior consideration of these topics by the appropriate Board Committee at a separate Committee meeting will help ensure that they have been thoroughly researched and considered. This should significantly streamline the subsequent full Board discussion and approval process.
  2. Spread the Load in the Agenda – Vary the people presenting agenda topics to make the meeting more interesting and to engage more people in this process. For example, ask Board Committee Chairs to present their Committee’s agenda items, and request that senior staff present topics when appropriate, instead of always depending upon the CEO.  Always confirm presenters prior to releasing the draft meeting agenda, and make sure that they have what they need to make a thorough, but concise, presentation.
  3. Distribute Agenda and Supporting Materials in Advance – The meeting agenda – listing each discussion topic, the presenter, and whether Board approval is sought on this issue – should be distributed in advance. Listing the expected start time for each agenda item can also be helpful in setting an expected pace for the meeting, making it easier to see when prolonged discussion on one issue threatens to hijack the agenda.  When distributed, the agenda should be accompanied by any supporting materials associated with the agenda topics (e.g. minutes of the prior meeting, financial reports, draft policies or contracts to be approved, Committee reports, etc.).  Distribution of these materials should be sufficiently in advance that Trustees can be expected to have reviewed all materials prior to the meeting (I recommend one week in advance).  (NOTE:  If advance distribution is via e-mail, it is best to also have printed copies of all materials on the table at the meeting, as even Trustees who diligently review all e-mailed materials may not print them out.)

Additional Suggestions:

  1. Place Time-Critical Approvals Near the Top of the Agenda – Agenda items that need formal Board action at a particular meeting in order to comply with either an internal or external deadline should be placed near the top of the meeting agenda to better ensure that action is taken even if discussion of a later issue hijacks the agenda.
  2. Consider Using a “Consent Agenda” – Institutions that have multiple items needing relatively routine Board approval might consider using a “Consent Agenda” for their quick approval. A “Consent Agenda” is essentially a list of routine actions presented for collective approval by a single vote of the governing body without discussion.  Typical “Consent Agenda” rules enable any Trustee to, solely upon their request, move any item from the “Consent Agenda” to the regular agenda in order to allow for Board discussion on that item.  Approval of the “Consent Agenda” is typically one of the earliest items on a meeting agenda.
  3. Single Issue Agendas – When Boards are confronted with particularly complex or difficult issues that demand more lengthy discussion (even after prior consideration by the appropriate Board Committee) they may wish to consider dedicating most, if not all, of a meeting’s agenda to the discussion of this single issue in order to resolve it expeditiously (rather than having to explore it repeatedly at two or more successive meetings).
  4. Avoid Rehashing Information Included in Advance Written Materials – If a written Committee Report, or other written materials, are provided to Trustees sufficiently in advance of the meeting, then presentation of that agenda item at the meeting should assume that Trustees have reviewed this advance material and NOT re-present it in full. A concise presentation of the major conclusion or recommendation from this material should be followed by opening the issue up for questions and discussion.  If a Trustee raises a question that was already covered in the written materials, either the presenter or the Board Chair should politely note that this was covered in the advance materials (which are also on the table in front of each Trustee), provide a very brief answer, and ask if there was anything the Trustee didn’t understand in the advance materials that needs further clarification.  If this policy is followed politely, but firmly, Trustees should get the message that review of provided Board materials prior to the meeting is essential to informed participation in the meeting.  (NOTE:  Following this policy is NOT for the faint of heart and should have the prior approval and support of the Board Chair to best ensure compliance.)

  5. Inject a Bit of “Mission” into Every Meeting – Board meeting agendas are frequently packed with very dry governance issues somewhat removed from direct fulfillment of the mission of the organization (e.g. review & discussion of financial statements, budgets, institutional policies, fundraising plans, prospective Trustee candidates, etc.). It is often helpful and even refreshing to devote a brief portion of each Board meeting to a core mission-oriented activity that reconnects Trustees with the institution’s primary mission.  Consider taking 15 minutes of the meeting agenda for one of the following types of activities at every meeting:
    • View recent or proposed collection acquisitions along with some cogent remarks by the curator about these objects and their relationship to the museum’s mission and collection.
    • Engage Trustees in a brief participatory educational activity emblematic of the kind of exercises used in a current museum interpretive program.
    • Have a curatorial staff member lead a brief discussion about an element of a current exhibition not already familiar to Trustees.
    • View a brief video clip from a recent educational program that gives Trustees a sense of how the museum connects with the program’s target audience.
    • Give a brief presentation about a collection object that recently underwent conservation treatment.
  6. Contentious Issues – Some particularly contentious issues may generate considerable discussion and debate at a Board meeting and threaten to hijack the meeting agenda. While appropriate research and consideration of the issue at a prior Committee meeting can help reduce this possibility, it doesn’t guarantee elimination of the problem.  Consider whether the Board has enough information to come to an immediate decision or whether the issue should be referred back to the appropriate Committee for further discussion and exploration of all feasible options.  While further consideration outside the current Board meeting may be helpful if prior Committee consideration was incomplete or inconclusive, sometimes Board disagreement on a given topic is inevitable and it is best to press on for immediate resolution in order to avoid repeating the same debate at the next meeting.
  7. Encourage Full Trustee Participation – In order to ensure a fully engaged Board, it is helpful to encourage every Trustee present at the meeting to participate. Make sure that there is an opportunity for everyone to express their views during discussions.  If it is noticed that a Trustee has not contributed at all during a Board meeting, it may be helpful to specifically ask that Trustee for his/her thoughts on the topic under discussion.  Even if the Trustee has nothing substantive to contribute at that time, being asked for an opinion helps to signal that his/her input is not only welcome but desired.  This role is typically played by the Board Chair, but is certainly not limited to the person in that position.

Meeting Follow-upJust as preparation for a Board meeting is critical to its success; good follow-up can similarly help ensure that decisions made at the meeting are promptly and appropriately implemented.  One of the most effective tools for Board meeting follow-up is appropriate documentation of the meeting and its outcomes.  Following are some elements of Board Meeting Minutes that help encourage good follow-up and implementation of approved actions:

  1. Prompt Distribution of Draft Mintues – Don’t wait until the week prior to the next meeting to distribute draft minutes. Immediate compilation and distribution of minutes reminds attendees of any action items that need follow-up and quickly informs absent Trustees of the outcomes of the meeting.  This can help foster prompt follow-up action by all concerned parties.
  2. Highlight “Action Item” Outcomes That Require Implementation – In documenting what took place at the meeting, Minutes sometimes trend toward being wordy. I recommend highlighting meeting outcomes that are Action Items requiring implementation in order to make these expected next steps prominent and easily identified.  Include in the “Action Item” the person(s) responsible for the next step, a brief description of the expected action, and when this next step should be completed.

As Boards of Trustees and their relationship dynamics are even more varied than the institution’s they govern, there is no one universal prescription for successful, effective Board meetings.  However, the above suggestions have helped many institutions to make their Board meetings function more effectively.

Happy meetings!


John E. Coraor, Ph.D.
Cultural Management Partners LLC