“I enjoy robust discussions at the board where different perspectives come together. I like my board to be very involved, engaged, energised, and to understand that we challenge not to criticise but always in the interest of our organisation’s wellbeing.”
How often charity boards meet, what they discuss and the medium for these discussions has been upended by the Covid-19 pandemic. Our research showed that while a small share of charity boards have stopped meeting altogether (6.1%), the majority now meet more frequently than before (57.6%).
At the same time, a considerable proportion of board members (43.8%) said their meetings have become less focussed on long-term strategic objectives, while risk and issues requiring urgent attention now feature more heavily.
In a time when many charities are making decisions as a matter of urgency and within ever shorter cadences, it may be tempting to cut back on discussions and make board meetings an exercise in rubber-stamping. This would be a mistake. Several chairs and chief executives we interviewed shared that good discussions set the stage for good decision-making. Talking properly about the issues can challenge ingrained assumptions of executive teams, facilitate buy-in among all stakeholders once a decision has been reached, and pave the way for successful follow-through.
Board members clearly value good discussions, and many recognise that there is room for improvement in their charity. When we asked trustees what they would change if they could tackle just one aspect of board meetings, 29% said they would prioritise improving the discussions they have. Quality of discussion varies widely across charity boards. We talked to chairs and chief executives who had fostered a culture where lively discussions were the norm and widely enjoyed. But we also heard from others for whom robust discussion had tipped over into hostility and strain, or who found the board to be passive, with members reluctant to contribute their views.
Charity boards are often staffed by professionals with considerable expertise across a wide range of disciplines. Nevertheless, many struggle to leverage this expertise effectively. We identified three main reasons for this from our interviews:
1. Executive capture
Discussions are often stifled because executive teams judge it sensible to avoid fuller consultation with the board or withhold information due to time pressure, uncertainty about an evolving situation, a history or culture of disengagement, or fear of uncomfortable interference.
Governance is only as good as the Executives around it. If something goes wrong, they need to keep the relevant people informed straight away. That includes the Board
2. Insufficient knowledge and engagement on the part of trustees
One Board Development Expert told us that it was not uncommon for trustees to know too little about their charity, or even too little about their charity’s sector more broadly, to contribute effectively. Even when they bring other professional expertise, for example legal or financial skills, it is essential that Board members understand the organisational mission and services, and that they are supported and encouraged to do so.
Boards only work well when everyone can contribute their skills.
3. Ineffective chairing
The effectiveness of discussions at board meetings often depends on meeting culture, and therefore on good chairing. One board development expert told us she had observed many charity board meetings where discussions seem to “go ‘round the houses” and that because trustees hardly interact outside of quarterly board meetings discussions can feel “like everyone is being a bit polite.”
Productive discussions are more likely where charities have recruited and onboarded their chair effectively and been frank and open about expectations of the role. But this is just one step towards establishing a culture of productive discussions at board level, one in which chairs and chief executives alike value the contributions of their trustees highly.
The board is my toolkit and free consultancy.
The sudden shift to virtual meetings has made it harder to have good discussions in the eyes of many of the chairs and chief executives we interviewed.
There are some positives. Organising meetings has become easier, and some interviewees felt that video calls had flattened hierarchies and made some attendees more comfortable. However, online debates often feel less lively and more “clunky”, despite the decision-making process remaining largely unchanged. Several chairs reported that trustees were being less assertive. One chair recounted vividly how his request for input was met by everyone muting their microphones.
Technology clearly contributes to the quality of online board discussions. For example, discussions are helped by good internet connections and video conference software that satisfactorily includes the necessary number of participants. At the same time, the observation that going virtual seems to be hampering productive discussions highlights that good debate requires, in the words of one chair, “quite subtle stuff.”
Informal moments create precious opportunities to discover how colleagues are feeling about agenda items. Board members told us that not being able to mingle with fellow trustees before and after meetings or during breaks was undermining their confidence in the decisions reached. One chair likened the value of in-person informal exchanges to the significance of coffee breaks during EU summit meetings or commercial negotiations. Likewise, body language was highlighted by many as a crucial element missing in virtual meetings.
If you can’t mingle, you have to work harder to understand what people really think. Especially in difficult situations you might find that any disagreements or conflict can usually be sorted out during breaks.
Good discussions often arise from active chairing, but they are not solely the responsibility of the chair. Everyone needs to put in the work both before and after the meeting. Our interviewees and broader research highlight four ways to support better discussions:
- Choose the right forum for discussions
- Involve stakeholders and trustees with specific expertise
- Structure agendas
- Actively manage discussions
1. Choose the right forum for discussions
Boards should discuss the high-level strategic issues without getting side-tracked by details. A good way to do this is by delegating detailed discussions to sub-committees. Moreover, sub-committees allow trustees to engage in depth with the work of their charity. This can lead to a greater sense of ownership and responsibility across the board.
Use board time to focus on key issues and minimise time on other ‘stuff’!
For sub-committees to enrich discussions across the entire board, chairs need to guard against:
- Duplicating discussions: Sub-committees should not become dry-runs of full board meetings. To prevent this, invite sub-committee chairs to present summaries of their discussions to board meetings.
- Knowledge & interest silos: Sub-committees should not become isolated. To keep the entire board engaged, include “sub-committee deep dives” in regular away-days.
- Coordination issues: Sub-committee discussions should feed into wider discussions across the entire board, so align sub-committee meetings with meetings of the full board.
Sub-committees have to do some heavy lifting in order to clear out space for more productive board meetings.
Schemes of delegation
Formal schemes of delegation can help you clarify who makes which decisions – including whether a matter gets to board and/or sub-committee. There are no rigid rules, but to be effective schemes of delegation need to be simple and up to date, with key principles and rules shared regularly. Most people we interviewed referred to their schemes but weren’t entirely sure what was in them. Those who understood their schemes of delegation found they lightened the load and streamlined decision-making.
2. Involve stakeholders and trustees with specific expertise
Often, the most productive discussions involve not only board members but also the executive team who will eventually be tasked with implementing the decision, and the people the charity exists to serve. Their perspectives can ground the board’s strategic outlook in the realities of a charity’s work.
To diversify input into your discussions, consider using the potential of virtual meetings to your advantage:
- Guests: Invite expert contributors who you would otherwise be unable to involve in discussions. Invite them to call in for parts of the meeting.
- Recording: Make your discussion as transparent and relatable as possible by recording relevant sections of the meeting and sharing with frontline staff.
Whether online or offline, some charity boards are already putting systems in place to ensure relevant stakeholder engagement:
- Pairing: To limit meeting size, some charities pair individual trustees with named contacts in the executive team. These duos establish a rapport outside of board meetings and share information which trustees can then feedback in board meetings.
- Experts by Experience: Consider including several Experts by Experience on your board. But be mindful not to expect a single individual to represent all service users.
- Active chairing: Be deliberate with whom to involve in a discussion and when. Consider asking board members with relevant expertise to contribute to a specific discussion ahead of the meeting, but be mindful to engage both experts and non-experts in the discussion.
Extra tip: Pre-meeting pulse check
Effective chairs anticipate conflict and engage with conflicting perspectives ahead of board meetings. Board development experts who regularly facilitate controversial discussions find them to be more open and constructive when chairs do a quick pulse-check ahead of meetings. The chair should survey board members ahead of time (anonymously, if needed) or in the meeting itself. It can be helpful to start the discussion by mentioning the levels of disagreement within the group. Chairs should or bring in moderate voices when there are conflicting views, but also consider asking for divergent views when there appears to be consensus.
3. Structure agendas
Our interviews found that the way the chair and chief executive build the agenda for a board meeting together strongly affects the quality of discussions that emerge. You can create an effective agenda by paying attention to focus, function and flow.
Focus: At the heart of many failures in decision-making lies the failure to properly define the goals you are pursuing and to keep them in mind. Being clear on your goals and on which are most important is the first step in decision-making success. For charities, this means constant focus on mission and impact. Mission is the starting point of good agendas:
- Ahead of the meeting, the chair and chief executive need to collectively ensure that what goes into a meeting is what is needed for the charity and its service users.
- At the meeting, the chair needs to make sure attendees understand the purpose of the meeting at large and of each agenda item individually.
As the chair, you ought to know when you are picking up an issue that will be controversial. Work out which trustees are interested, talk to them beforehand, show them the draft paper, and create space during meeting to discuss controversies.
Function: Discussions can be undermined by confusion over whether an agenda item is for decision, approval, information, or discussion. Simple communication can create clarity:
- Include each item’s broader purpose on the agenda to focus discussion on the issues that matter.
- Include a comment on the required preparation for each agenda item when sending out the agenda ahead of the meeting (e.g. referencing specific board papers).
The effectiveness of board meetings depends a lot on planning the agenda. You need to be clear on what you want out of each item and make sure that all the inputs you are going to need are available. Chairs might have to tee up a couple of trustees in advance to contribute their perspective to a specific item. They also need to ensure that the right member of staff is there to provide expertise in the room.
Flow: To create a sensible flow through the meeting, consider the following sequence:
- Start with ‘warm-up’ items (e.g. announcements, updates). They help build momentum but should take no more than 10-15% of the meeting. Because these are more factual, the meeting can start on time irrespective of late-comers.
- 10-15% into the meeting, schedule the most important items. This generates engagement of attendees early on and ensures those topics are covered. Research has shown that items that appear early on an agenda receive the most attention during meetings. (Littlepage, G. E., & Poole, J. R. (1993). Time allocation in decision making groups. Journal of Social Behavior & Personality, 8, 663–672.)
- Close with a few minutes of wrap-up (e.g. take-aways, clarification of assignments, Q&A to promote good communication in the team).
Consider what items need to be addressed in close proximity and build the agenda in a way that tells a ‘story’. Be sure to include proactive items that focus on the long-term vision and strategy of your charity, and not just short-term firefighting.
An agenda is an event plan. When planning an event, we think carefully about the details, the flow, the experience, and the approach. The same mindset and process should occur when planning a meeting.
4. Actively manage discussions
Chairs who successfully facilitate good discussions tend to know their trustees well. They know who habitually disagrees, who offers very few but high-value contributions, who rambles, who switches off in conversations outside their expertise, and who will have read every paper in full.
Active chairing means enabling trustees to play to their strengths. Encourage trustees to follow Barack Obama’s “don’t admire the problem” culture of discussion that focusses on solutions-oriented contributions.
Don’t admire the problem!
Chairs who successfully involve quieter and less forthcoming trustees shared the following tips:
- Pairs: Invite trustees to discuss an issue in pairs and give a summary. More introverted trustees may prefer sharing their opinion in smaller groups. Summary contributions to the entire board also allow for a degree of depersonalisation that can foster openness.
- Around the room: Go around the (virtual) room to give every attendee an opportunity to speak (a pass is possible). However, some agenda items are better handled by exception where everyone who wants to contribute raises their hand to speak. For specific decisions, a show of hands or survey can quickly reveal the range of views present and then focus discussions on areas of agreement and disagreement.
Good discussions emerge when chairs can deliberately engage attendees with contrasting views, challenging questions, and need for clarification. Both virtual and in-person Board meetings might benefit from adopting a wider range of hand signals that attendees can use to indicate the kind of contribution they would like to make. A range of hand signs not only enables discussion-centred chairing, it also allows attendees to express different viewpoints simply and visibly without needing to take centre stage.
Finally, active chairs are not only aware of trustees’ habits and preferences in discussions, but also of their own ability to shape and even inadvertently shut-down conversations. Chairs’ opinions disproportionately affect discussions. To avoid biasing debate, some chairs find it helpful to deliberately withhold their contribution to the end of a discussion. (Flowers, M. L. (1977). A laboratory test of some implications of Janis’s groupthink hypothesis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 35(12), 888.)
Extra tip: Supporting good chairing
To help Chairs facilitate effective decision-making, Boards could consider the following:
Introduce a vice chair to provide regular feedback to the chair and support with preparing and leading board meetings.
Rotate decision-making roles. Certain agenda items could be assigned to a named trustee with the authority to make a final decision and commit the charity to action.
Work with a board secretary who can facilitate effective decision-making by helping maintain good meeting practice. The role of board secretary is not purely administrative.
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