Rob Levit is a Standards for Excellence® Licensed Consultant.

Are you looking to revamp your board meetings? Do you need help bringing life and purpose to your board? Begin by ensuring that each member of your board has the five documents listed below at every board meeting. The results will amaze you.

Before I became a nonprofit consultant, I spent years navigating the process of running a small not-for-profit community arts organization. Many small nonprofits start with the heart, and my organization was no different. It’s a common story: someone sees a need in their community and takes the initiative to address it by starting a nonprofit. Rarely do leaders of start-up nonprofits have knowledge of the intricacies of running an organization. And how could they? Running a successful, accountable nonprofit is a maze of best practices, standard compliances, and regulations that can wither the spirits of even the most inspired leader. Things can get sloppy, and fast without some critical structures in place.

I am passionate about working with small (and often new) nonprofits and strive to demystify the nonprofit process. I believe in creating simple-to-follow structures, scaffolds and processes that lead my clients to success by making sometimes difficult concepts accessible and manageable.

Board meetings, in particular, tend to be trouble spots for small nonprofit organizations. Time and time again I see board meetings become disorganized, without concrete purpose and nebulous in outcome. The board chair runs through the order of business like a to-do list, often leaving board members wondering why they are needed in the room. It’s not surprising many organizations report low attendance at board meetings when they feel boring, pointless, and like a tired mechanism for delivering reports! Create a scaffold for successful meetings using these five documents:

  1. Stay On Track With a Board Meeting Agenda

Your board brings a diverse set of experiences and expertise to the table. Keep your meetings on track and mission-minded with an agenda.

This sounds obvious…but it’s not! Create an agenda for every board meeting. I encourage my clients to START WITH MISSION because it’s both inspiring AND clarifying. Include your mission and vision at the top of the agenda, and begin each meeting by reading them out loud. Every subsequent item on your agenda should feed directly back into your mission and vision. If it doesn’t…why is it there?

It’s so easy to get stuck in the weeds and waste an entire board meeting discussing minutiae like deciding on what type of fundraiser rather than what drives the need for funds. Your board must make the most of their time and energy. By keeping your mission top of mind, you will streamline and focus your organization. As an added bonus, conclude every board meeting by reading your mission as well. At the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about: delivering on mission and vision.

  1. Embrace Accountability With Easy-To-Read Financials

Provide every board member with an easy-to-digest snapshot of where your organization is financially. This must include a one-page only profit and loss statement, a one-page only balance sheet and a one-page board-approved annual budget that includes budget-to-actual comparisons. At the very least, these financial statements should be reviewed quarterly, but I encourage you to provide them at every board meeting. The treasurer and executive director should prepare to summarize any expenses that jump off the page and bring them up so no board member is left in the dark about the expenses. Few people enjoy looking at financial documents, so make it as easy as possible for them and be proactive about predicting questions and providing answers. Your financial documents are the hard evidence that you are spending money in the right places. Small nonprofits, in particular, must be extremely accountable, as upsetting one or two large donors can be catastrophic for your bottom line. The more streamlined, accurate, presentable and accessible your financials, the more effectively you will operate.

  1. Dust Off Your Strategic Plan

Just like your financials and agenda, your strategic plan must be easy to digest. Emphasize plain, common language and a format that is easy on the eyes. Larger organizations sometimes emerge from strategic planning with a 50 to 60-page plan. I believe the most effective strategic plans are no longer than 10 to 15 pages. Smaller nonprofits tend to fall around five to six pages long. Even at this length, people stop reading around page three or four.

For maximum impact, make a simple summarized version of your strategic plan. Include your mission and vision, goals, the rationale behind your goals, your objective, and your performance indicators. Strategic planning is an expensive process, and finalized plans are expensive to produce. Don’t let your strategic plan sit on the shelf until the next planning session comes around. Your strategic plan should be a living working document that you refer to at every board meeting. Every activity of the organization must be benchmarked off the strategic plan. Especially for smaller nonprofits that will sometimes “chase” money and grants, referring to your strategic plan will keep you on track.

  1. Embrace The Standards for Excellence®: An Ethics and Accountability Code for the Nonprofit Sector

The Standards for Excellence®: An Ethics and Accountability Code for Standards for Excellence Codethe Nonprofit Sector is a set of objective standards and best practices on how nonprofits should operate. It identifies six major areas of nonprofit governance and management which contain 27 different topic areas. Each topic area includes specific benchmarks and measures that provide a structured approach to building capacity, accountability, and sustainability in your organization. (Sidenote: Members of the Standards for Excellence Institute and its sponsor organization, Maryland Nonprofits, gain access to an extensive library of educational resource packets aligned with the Code. Standards for Excellence Licensed Consultants like myself can also provide you with these educational packets during a consulting engagement.)

I advise my clients to provide every board member with a copy of the Standards for Excellence Code. Listen in on any board meeting and you’ll hear “We can’t do that! The last board I was on did it this other way…” Dissent like this at the board level can sink an organization and takes critical mission discussions right off track. Rigorous discussion can be effective, but argument is not productive. The Standards for Excellence Code is an objective measure, so dissent and contention is removed. It depersonalizes what can become hot button issues and you don’t have to rely on a board member to be a governance “expert.” The Code answers questions (i.e. what is the relationship between the board and the executive director?) in a clear and concise way.

  1. Don’t Let Bylaws Be Bygones

Bylaws describe how organizations operate and are governed. Each board member should have a copy of the bylaws in front of them during meetings. Questions inevitably come up: “Can she serve another term?…Do we have to vote on this decision?” Having easy access to the bylaws empowers all board members to answer questions about governance on the spot.

Tip: Choose a different item on the bylaws to review briefly at every meeting. You’ll get on the same page, encouraging understanding about how the organization is governed. Don’t just pull out by-laws when you are desperate for them. Use them as a functional and oft-referred to document.

BONUS: Incorporate MISSION MOMENTS into every board meeting. Being a nonprofit is tough, and we must celebrate every victory. Make it a priority to share a success story, a powerful statistic, a fundraising success, or a positive program outcome. These successes will empower and inspire your board and yourself as you take on the tough topics.

Even if you are an inexperienced board (which is common with small nonprofits) you don’t have to go it alone! Ensure that these five documents are sitting in front of every board member at every meeting. With these powerful documents, you create the structure for your meeting, and incorporate scaffolding for it to run professionally, regardless of your own experience. Follow this list and you’re on your way to running a tight meeting!