“Best Ever” is our new feature at Northwest Nonprofit Notes, an article with one favorite idea from several of our contributors all on the same topic.  This month we asked our consultants to share one of their “Best Ever” ideas for improving board meetings, creative ways to breathe life into board meetings that may be feeling a little lackluster.  Pick a couple of these and try them if your board meeting feels like it needs a little “spring cleaning”, and let us know how it goes in the comment section! (And check out last issue’s ideas on donor stewardship if you missed them!)

Facilitate Dialogue

By Julie Edsforth

As a consultant and a former board chair, what I find most useful to remind my clients and myself when preparing for a board meeting is to think like a facilitator. That is, design activities that get each individual participating in dialogue that leads to learning, understanding, and ultimately to a place where informed and strategic decision making can take place. My favorite activity for this is called Making Sense Together. Here’s how it goes:

After presenting a topic, issue, opportunity, or future plan, take 30 minutes to discuss in this format:

  • 5 minutes: Reflect silently by yourself on what you’re hearing and learning so far. What stands out for you? What is surprising? What’s taking shape? What are you understanding in the information being shared? Take notes if that’s helpful to you.
  • 5 minutes: Turn to your neighbor and share your thinking.
  • 10 minutes: Two pairs gather and share their thinking. Look for patterns and divergence.
  • 10 minutes: Each group shares observations with the whole; facilitator records on flipchart

Inspired Devil’s Advocacy

By Heidi Thomson-Daly

It’s so important that we create the conditions in a Board meeting where everyone feels they can share their point of view, especially when their views differ. This is true of any type of discussion, but it’s especially paramount when consequential decisions are being made and voted on. While you’d hope everyone would speak up on their own, some Board members might be reluctant to say something if they perceive they have a minority opinion, disagree with the direction things are going in, or are perhaps new to the Board and don’t fully understand what’s going on.

To prevent this dynamic, I’ve used a creative facilitation technique that could work for any Board. Go out and get a red rubber duck with the devil horns, and bring it to the next meeting. At your next meeting when something is being discussed, throw the duck to a Board member and ask them to play “devil’s advocate “on the idea or decision that’s being discussed. Once they do, have that person throw it to someone else, and have them do the same thing. By introducing this technique, it forces the group to acknowledge and discuss the alternative direction or idea that is on the table, before everyone just goes ahead and says “yea” when asked “All those in favor?” Not only does it work, but it helps to advance due diligence, livens things up and make the conversation more fun!

Share Your Stories

By Jennifer Weber

Making time for Board Members to get to know each other on a personal level can be challenging. There’s always important board business to conduct, and most board meetings have packed agendas. However, if you take even 5-10 minutes at the beginning of each board meeting to create time and space for people to make meaningful connections and learn more about each other, it makes the rest of the board meeting more productive, more effective, and certainly more fun. Over the years of working with boards, I have been amazed at how little board members know about each other.

Here are two easy activities you can do with your Board that require no advance prep and will strengthen connections and build authentic relationships among your board members.

Share Your Most Meaningful Giving Story (5-7 Minutes)

Ask your Board Members to take a moment and think about one of the most meaningful gifts they’ve ever given and what motivated or inspired them to give that gift. (I’m talking about a philanthropic gift, not a birthday gift. I did have a board member who was confused about this). It doesn’t have to be the largest gift they’ve made or even a gift to your organization. The point of the story is to share what inspired them to give and why it was meaningful for them.

  1. Give your Board about a minute to think quietly to themselves about this question. Some people need that time to process, before they can share with others.
  2. Then, ask your Board to stand up, walk across the room to find a partner. The partner should be someone they don’t know well.
  3. Have them share their story in pairs for about 5 minutes.
  4. Then have them sit down. Ask a few people who are comfortable to share what they learned about their board partner and what inspired them. They will see that people are motivated by different things. Each donor has their own reasons for giving. Each story is personal and illuminates a different point of inspiration and motivation.

Share Your Most Memorable Volunteering Experience (5-7 minutes)

You can do the exact same activity but with a different question related to volunteering. Ask your Board Members to think of the most rewarding or memorable experience they’ve had as a volunteer. Have them pair up again and share what made that experience so special for them. Trust me, your Board Members will learn a lot about each other through these activities, and it will give you as an organization some insight into what matters to them.

Count to Five

By Emily Anthony

I once did a series of interviews about what keeps people coming back to board and committee meetings. There were 5 basic feelings that came up over and over again as the reasons why people stayed engaged with the organization. And kind of like the 5 Love Languages, different people needed these feelings in different amounts to want to keep coming back. Here are the 5 things people most often said kept them excited about coming to meetings:

  • I helped accomplish important work
  • I learned something
  • I felt inspired, I was moved
  • I got to spend time interacting with people I know and like
  • I felt appreciated

Since different people are looking for different things out of the board meeting, trying to offer all these things at least a little bit at each meeting is important. Maybe the “mission moment” doesn’t feel like the most important thing on the agenda to you, but to the person who needs to be inspired to feel like their time was well spent, skipping it is a big deal. Plan your agenda with this checklist in front of you, making an effort to offer agenda items that hit all 5 of these key feelings. Here are some examples for each area:

  1. Accomplishment: a meaty discussion that moves the needle on an issue, a board decision
  2. Learning: a training on a new skill, or an expert sharing information about what’s new in the program or the field
  3. Inspiration: a client testimonial, program update, or donor story that highlights why your work is important
  4. Social Connection: a discussion in pairs or small groups, an icebreaker that helps people get to know each other, or open-ended social time
  5. Appreciation: genuine thanks for work that has been done by team members, calling out folks who made a special effort, silly tokens of appreciation, chocolate. (We found this one is the most often overlooked; be intentional about including it!)

If you do this every month, pretty soon you will have this list in your head and it will be second nature to plan agendas that hit all 5 points, keeping all your board members coming back for more.

Ready, Set, Evaluate!

By Sara Lawson

A brief, on-the-spot meeting evaluation is one of the easiest ways to uncover what’s working and what’s not in your board meetings. The results will provide great fodder for a productive conversation about what practices to keep, what to change, and how to make meetings more engaging and effective. (Please note: this is not an overall assessment of board performance, which is typically a more in-depth review of board composition, structures, operations, fiduciary oversight, etc.)

Here’s what it looks like in action:


  • Find or adopt a meeting evaluation to suit your purposes. This sample addresses logistics, content, preparation, teamwork/process, and overall impressions. It also includes some open-ended questions about what’s working and what could be improved.
  • Schedule 10 minutes at the end of an upcoming board meeting, and ask board members to complete the evaluation individually. While some organizations prefer to use an online version, I have found that response rates are much lower, and the comments are less useful because they’re based on more distant recollections rather than immediate impressions.
  • Convene a small group to review the results and identify themes. Ideally, this group would be made up of the Executive Director and the Board Development Committee.
  • Share the results and discuss initial recommendations with the board. Pick 2-4 priorities, and develop approaches that build on your current strengths and/or address what’s not working. Don’t try to change everything at once. Where appropriate, invite suggestions from the whole board to address whatever the evaluation uncovered.
  • Expect this to be an ongoing process. It may be worth doing a follow-up meeting evaluation after 6-12 months to see what impact the changes are having, and what tweaks you might want to make next.