Nightmare board meeting dragged on for hours

Alyce Lee Stansbury, CFRE, Notes on Nonprofits

I heard about a nonprofit board meeting that sounded too unbelievable to be true and not in a good way.
The meeting was scheduled for 6 p.m. but before the chair called the meeting to order everyone sat around the table talking about their day. After 20 minutes, a guest at the meeting finally got up the courage to ask if they were waiting for something. The chair said one of the board members was going to be late then added, “like always.”

The guest was a little annoyed to wait for one person when everyone else had been on time and wondered why board members didn’t feel the same way. The chair also commented they weren’t a formal board and “we like to shoot the b.s.” After finally calling the meeting to order, the chair handed out an agenda with more than 20 items on it.
As the agendas were distributed, the chair said, “strap yourselves in, we’re going to be here a while.” Everyone laughed so the guest assumed this was normal. However, when the first item on the agenda took more than 30 minutes, they weren’t laughing anymore. The guest wondered if they really intended to be there all night. 

During the meeting, anyone and everyone talked. They talked over the top of each other, talked louder so they could be heard, even got up and went to the restroom and came back still talking. One woman talked so loudly about why people couldn’t do what they wanted to do some people got mad and some just stopped trying.

The guest couldn’t stay all night and finally left at 9 p.m.  A few other board members took that opportunity to leave as well since they had only gotten through seven of the 20 agenda items. The guest wondered how in the world this organization keeps and attracts board members with meetings like this. 

As I listened to this story, it was easy to recognize this board meeting was essentially a social gathering. The meeting started whenever everyone felt like it, there was little or no structure to the agenda, agendas were not distributed in advance, and little to no vetting of agenda items had taken place prior to the meeting.

The chair was not leading the meeting, following parliamentary procedure, or using best practices for effective board meetings. As an all-volunteer organization, there was no staff leader to lend support or help board members prepare for the meeting. 

Running an effective board meeting takes skill and practice. While it is important to have social time among board members this should take place before and after meetings. Once the meeting starts, the business of the organization should be the focus. Board meetings should start and end on time and never last three hours or more unless the board has agreed to an extended session for a specific reason with an agreed upon agenda.

Agendas should be developed and sent in advance so board members can be prepared to participate in the discussion. The number of agenda items should reflect the highest and best use of board member’s time.

Board meetings are also not committee meetings with all board members in attendance. If this happen in a board meeting, it is the responsibility of the chair to refer committee discussions back to the committee. Board agendas should reflect the nonprofit’s priorities as defined in the strategic plan. I’m guessing this board does not have a plan or if they do, it is not being followed.  

One other issue I’d like to address is about alcohol at board meetings. I’ve noticed more boards serving alcohol or having it available for purchase before and during the meeting. Alcohol is not likely to enhance the board’s ability to conduct business and may reinforce the idea that board meetings are social times. I recommend not serving alcohol until after the meeting.

If you have a question about what you’ve seen or experienced at a board meeting, please email me at [email protected]
Alyce Lee Stansbury, CFRE is President of Stansbury Consulting.  Her column writing partner, Kelly Otte, MPA, is on sabbatical.

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