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Board Meeting Dynamics

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Board Meeting Dynamics

BOARDS SHOULD MASTER THE ART OF SAYING NOTHING

This article, by Ken Hoffmanan, originally appeared in Third Sector on June 4, 2003.

Every board of trustees meeting inflicts a special torture on senior charity staff. Twice a year, four times a year, or for the unluckiest, six times a year, staff roll out the red carpet, sweep away the crumbs on the big table, and brew up fresh coffee in anticipation of the trustees' arrival.

I have now survived a quarter of a century of this with most of that time being on the staff team. Perhaps some of my experiences and conclusions are familiar to you.

The group dynamic of a board meeting brings out the worst behaviour and suppresses the best. Otherwise intelligent and astute people can become self-important monsters. Why does every board elect one loud-mouth who insists on delivering an oration against one or more programmes at each meeting?

A psychologist friend explained to me that there is a group dynamic whereby a person who is well integrated into a group will only speak up when they can move the process forward. But when someone is not integrated, their self-esteem compels them to speak up, even when their contribution is unhelpful.

Personally, I am less content with the psychic explanation and favour a more rationalist outlook - they are unhelpful because they refuse to accept their true role.

This theory holds that disruptive board members choose to ignore both the purpose of board meetings and the highest priority for board membership, at least at larger and well-established charities. The purpose of a board meeting, fundamentally, is to apply a rubber stamp of approval, required by law, to the charity's actions. Not unthinkingly, of course.

The stamp should be withheld where there is a genuine illegal act and outrageously bad judgment. But, on the whole, the board exists not to propose the right course, but to oppose an erroneous one.

On some occasions, I am permitted to wear a hat different from the fundraisers'.

This is when I am a volunteer board member, which, in the US, assumes making donations to the charity. How very kind the staff are to me; they must genuinely like me. And then the scales fall from my eyes. They need my help but they do not want me to get in the way of well-considered staff decisions. At the board meeting, silence is golden.