Nonprofit boards, especially those with long-time members, can become like families – they have rehearsed their interactions, opinions, and thinking many times. Every time they get together, they tread the same well-worn path, particularly when long-standing, “hot-button” issues are put on the table. Of course, there are many structural issues on boards (term length and renewal, committee structure, etc.) that can contribute to this phenomenon. In the long term, those things need to be dealt with.
However, even without fundamental changes in the membership, structure, or culture of a board, it is possible to change the dynamics of board meeting discussions. As a facilitator, I use a number of different strategies. Some suggestions: 1. Change the meeting environment – have the meeting at a beneficiary organization’s location. 2. Switch the seating around – don’t let people sit in their accustomed places next to their buddies. 3. Put staff around the table interspersed with board members. 4. Anticipate how individual board members might respond in a discussion and prime other members in advance to speak up and get things back on track. 5. Bring in a facilitator to manage key discussions. 6. If things get stuck, break the meeting up into spontaneous groups of three – mixing staff and board if staff are in the room – and give them 10 minutes to consider the issue or question and then share their thoughts with the group. 7. Incorporate “right-brain” activities into a meeting (e.g., ask them to take a few minutes and write a haiku about the organization and why it is valuable to the community; assign a member for each meeting to choose a piece of music he/she likes, tell the group why, and play it).
My favorite facilitator’s “trick” is to listen intently to a meeting participant who is making a totally off the wall, irrelevant, disruptive comment. I nod a lot and at an opportune moment, I point to the person and say something along the lines of, “Yes, yes! That is a very useful thought to keep in mind as we go through the discussion. Thank you for adding that to the mix.” Then, turning to someone else, “I saw your hand….do you have something you wanted to add as well?”