Board Meetings: Time to Go Virtual?
Kelly H. Buchheit
Regularly scheduled board meetings are a necessity, but not every meeting has to be conducted in person. Virtual board meetings — ranging from conference calls to videoconferencing — can offer significant benefits for both organizations and their board members.
As anyone involved in not-for-profit management knows, it can be difficult to secure full board meeting attendance or even meet quorum. Board members tend to have very busy schedules and may often travel, making in-person attendance at every meeting extremely difficult. Virtual meetings can allow board members to attend meetings they otherwise could not, giving them the chance to interact and make valuable contributions.
Making Attendance Easier
Virtual attendance also can make board participation more appealing to potential candidates who may located throughout the country. Knowing they will not be expected to show up at every meeting may make busy candidates more likely to commit their time. Virtual meetings also can help prevent board member “burnout” by making the time they spend more focused and meaningful.
Of course, effective virtual meetings are not without obstacles. Members cannot read each other’s facial expressions and body language, potentially leading to misunderstandings or conflicts. In addition, the chair can find it difficult to shepherd discussion and debate, especially with larger boards. Each participant needs to hear and be heard clearly throughout the meeting.
There is also the concern of confidentiality. You must be able to trust that the board members are alone in their remote locations, with no outsiders privy to the discussions. Finally, members in remote locations are often more vulnerable to distractions.
Taking Steps to Success
Virtual board meetings require extensive preparation, particularly for the inaugural meeting, and being an effective presenter at a virtual meeting requires on-point training. Never spring a virtual meeting on board members without first conducting and sharing research and discussing the implications of such a change at an in-person meeting.
In addition, board members should recognize that certain issues are more suitable to in-person discussion than others. Virtual meetings generally work best for straightforward discussions— for example, updates from program or development staff or the formal approval of a policy or budget discussed in detail at an earlier meeting. They also may prove useful for relatively brief meetings needed to obtain board approval for an urgent action.
As with any leadership meeting, it is up to your not-for-profit’s staff to organize, provide the necessary equipment and prepare the board for a virtual event. Among other things, staff should:
- Send board members any supporting materials well in advance of the meeting and consider making them available online during the event (whether via e-mail or some type of secure Web portal);
- Provide the appropriate training to any speakers, and ask board members to check in several minutes before the scheduled start to avoid interruptions once the meeting starts; and
- Take time zones into account when scheduling the start time.
Perhaps the most critical step is for everyone to become familiar with the relevant technology. Test the system ahead of time to ensure it works as needed and establish backup plans in the event of technological failures.
Do Not Forget the Law
To avoid getting tripped up by legal problems, check applicable state laws for not-for-profit board meetings. Your state, for instance, might allow teleconferencing but not videoconferencing. It may also be necessary to amend your bylaws to permit virtual meetings before holding such a meeting.
For more information, please contact Kelly Seames at firstname.lastname@example.org or call her at 312.670.7444.