Board Meeting Tip: A Simple Way to Generate Deeper Dialogue at your Next Board Meeting

Board Meeting Tip: A Simple Way to Generate Deeper Dialogue at your Next Board Meeting
May 2014 by Emily Anthony and Julie Edsforth

Culture of Giving

Most boards understand the value of having “generative discussions” at meetings, but our experience is that all too often those discussions aren’t as lively and illuminating as they could be.  Board meetings tend to follow the same format:  a litany of report-outs and recommendations with little time for discussion, where one person speaks, the whole group listens, maybe a few questions are asked, perhaps you vote on something, and then you move on to the next item. If you are craving deeper dialogue, analysis and critical thinking at your board meetings, here’s one method that we’ve found works and is straightforward and easy to implement.  We like it because:

  • It doesn’t take up much time – you can do this entire activity in as little as 30 minutes – but cultivates teamwork, trust, and accountability
  • It lends itself to bigger picture thinking and allows for probing, comparison, pattern finding and idea generation.
  • It draws out quieter voices and encourages louder voices to think before they speak
Step One: Introduce the Topic ~time varies, 5 to 15 minutes
  • Choose a "meaty" topic of consequence to your organization. Be sure to provide enough context about the issue and what you already know about the opportunity or challenge it presents to your organization.
  • E.g. At the May Board meeting of an environmental advocacy organization, the Executive Director and Finance Director present the FY15 budget and the values, priorities and trade-offs inherent in it.  They provided the summary budget in the board packet sent out ahead of the meeting, and present a chart at the meeting that summarizes the key values, priorities and trade-offs.


Step Two:  Silent Reflection ~2 minutes
  • Give everyone two to three minutes of silence to reflect upon what they’ve heard.  Ask them to write down their thoughts and any questions on a piece of paper. 
  • E.g. The Board of a reproductive rights organization is being asked to consider a merger exploration with a sister organization.  One board member jots down the following thoughts:  1. This is exciting…so many possibilities for the future; 2. How will this affect our strategic plan and our other organizational partners? 3. How much will the merger exploration cost?


Step Three:  Share with a Partner ~5 minutes
  • Ask board members to turn to their neighbor and spend 5 minutes sharing their thoughts and questions.  Encourage them to look for similarities, differences, and any themes they feel might be emerging. 
  • E.g. Two board members at an early learning organization are sharing their thoughts on the fundraising plan goals just presented by the Director of Development.  Talking to each other, they realize they both want more information about the role board members will be playing in implementing these plans. They also generate 3 new ideas about the major gift campaign. 


Step Four:  Whole Group Discussion ~ minimum 15 minutes
  • Ask for volunteers to share what they discussed.  On a whiteboard or flipchart, write down key words and phrases.  Address questions as they come up, or note them to research later and report back at the next meeting.
  • E.g. During a whole group discussion about a proposed new financial aid policy being considered at an independent school, several Board members shared their concern about how the change will impact the socio-economic diversity of the school.  Other board members bring up how it will stabilize the school’s finances and allow them to make needed facility improvements.  By the end of the conversation, all of the pros and cons of the new policy were considered, an amendment to the policy was proposed, and they were ready to take a vote


Reformatting and focusing your Board meetings to stimulate dialogue and substantive conversation is not just for Board retreats and doesn’t require expert facilitation.  It just requires a willingness to abandon old habits and try something new.   Try it and let us know how it goes!

For more ideas, check out Blue Avocado’s recent re-post And Now for a Different Type of Board Agenda and Nancy Axelrod’s Culture of Inquiry: Healthy Debate in the Board Room.

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