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Kelly Segal Consulting

Can you hear me now? Board meetings and phoning it in.

I recently attended a conference for nonprofit professionals, and this caught my eye: How to Engage & Maximize Your Nonprofit Board featuring social enterprise and start-up investor, Chris Himes. I popped in to hear what one high-level angel investor had to say about nonprofit board engagement.


Phoning It In

When asked what frustrates him most about nonprofit boards, he answered, “Phoning it in.”  Most board meeting attendees have sat in meetings where one or more board members call in if they’re unable to attend in person. Prior to listening to Chris, I found calling in a bit of a necessary evil, and had the mindset that some level of participation is better than none.

Chris challenged my perspective. He remarked that when any of us call in to meetings, any number of things distracts us: our phone and computer, our environment, our dog…  It adds up to us really only half listening. I have a memory of a board member from my past for whom board meeting time was also gym time, and any vocal contribution was accompanied by a good bit of heavy breathing!

Chris pointed out this “half-assedness” is the reason why a less-than-stellar effort is actually termed phoning it in. “Tough conversations,” he said, “happen in person. Write checks if you want to, but don’t pretend you are working for the board, if you aren’t.” 


It’s On Us

So while phoning it in is a practice EDs and professionals would like to see diminish at board meetings, nonprofits need to ask themselves: why aren’t more board members compelled to up their in-person attendance game? Is the agenda thoughtful? Does the meeting design render their presence critical? 

The lesson learned was that board members need to do more than review financial statements. Exposure to the organization’s impact by hearing directly from those both carrying out the mission, and impacted by it, is important. They want the responsibility of actively guarding the organization’s vision, and helping it thrive by constantly ensuring that everything happening is in line with the fundamental elements of the mission. They want to have to be there.

Before the session ended, someone asked what if a board member has a really good reason for not attending a meeting? The answer: unless it’s a medical emergency, or something just as urgent, show them attendance is important–reschedule the meeting.