Why Attendance Matters: Nonprofit Governance in a World of Busy Board Members

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Several people (Executive Directors and Board members) have contacted ONEplace recently asking how to increase consistent attendance and follow though with their nonprofit’s Board members.

On many (maybe ‘most’) boards, a core of people participate in every board meeting/action, every assigned committee, and contribute time, talents, and money to additional activities that support the organization. Many (most) boards also have members who, while ‘supportive,’ are sporadic in both their attendance and follow-through, leaving the active core to carry out the governance responsibilities on behalf of the entire board and the constituents of the nonprofit.

Why People Don’t Build the Attendance Commitment Into Their Schedule

Board members may be less than 100% committed to attending meetings for a number of reasons. Let’s look at a few.

They don’t know it’s expected.

  • Are there board attendance policies? Bylaws specifying attendance? If so, were they clearly outlined during recruitment and orientations? 
  • Is it their ‘experience’ that attendance isn’t taken seriously by other board members, especially the chair?
  • Is there a provision for ‘unexcused’ versus ‘excused’ (the member is still missing) absences?
  • Are there any consequences for missing meetings? Have they ever been enforced?

They are ‘too busy’ to make every meeting.

  • Everyone is busy, over-busy. Sometimes balancing work, volunteer activities, and family responsibilities is difficult (they may think, ‘impossible’) for everyone.
  • The time of meetings doesn’t work in their schedule well. Has the board defined a mutually agreeable time for everyone and planned for a year at a time?
  • They are ‘volunteering’ and this organization/board is not as high a priority as ‘conflicting’ events.

They don’t find the meetings motivating.

  • Meetings are ‘boring’ or ‘rubber stamp’ sessions for committee and staff reports.
  • Meetings are dominated by a few members and their input isn’t sought or valued.
  • The connection between their role and the organization’s mission and outcomes for constituents isn’t clear, emotionally or intellectually.

What To Do

BoardSource recently sent an announcement on a new book (which is on order for ONEplace) with the lead-in: Board Meeting Attendance Is Not Optional, So Meet Smarter.

The book, titled Meeting and Exceeding Expectations, A Guide to Successful Nonprofit Board Meetings, encourages meetings that are “inspiring, productive, and efficient”:

  • Establish a ‘consensus agenda’ board meeting format in which reports are sent out ahead of meetings and approved as a bundle, and meetings are only focused on in-depth mission-driven policy or issue discussions and action items.
  • Elect a ‘devil’s advocate of the day’ to take a contrary stance on the issues under discussion in order to keep thinking fresh and discussions productive.
  • Elect a ‘devil’s inquisitor of the day’ to ask difficult questions; to keep all arguments on the table and non-personal. Better governance emerges from open, challenging discussions.
  • Clarify legal and ethical responsibilities each board member committed to when s/he agreed to serve.

In addition, invite board members who miss even a couple meetings (for any reason)  to evaluate their ability to keep the commitment to actively serve on the board, and let them know it is ‘okay’ to resign. Lives change, schedules change, interests change: it's okay to give up your board seat for your own good, and the good of the organization.

Board members who aren’t in attendance aren’t available to provide input from their unique perspectives and expertise; aren’t available to vote on issues; aren’t available to learn from the other board members and staff. They are missing and missed.

Here are some additional resources and ideas to help strengthen attendance at board meetings and, therefore, governance of nonprofits, even in a world of busy board members.

Resource in ONEplace:

On the web:


Meeting, and Exceeding Expectations: A Guide to Successful Nonprofit Board Meetings, Second Edition by Outi Flynn

Posted by Bobbe Luce at 08/06/2009 04:33:40 PM | 

Thanks for the post, very interesting. Nice one.
Posted by: Chinese gifts ( Email ) at 5/18/2010 4:43 AM

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