How to Facilitate Board Meetings

How to Facilitate Board Meetings

  |  November 9, 2021

Your board’s culture is established, in large measure, by the way board meetings are facilitated. The primary purpose of board meetings is to do the board’s work: to make decisions. The quality of facilitation affects the trustworthiness of board decisions. Choice of facilitator is a strategic choice that deserves careful consideration.

Facilitation is not the sole responsibility of the Board President or their designee.  The facilitator is the guardian of process and is at the service of the group. However, each board member should also take responsibility for ensuring that the group’s process is clear, inclusive, positive, and effective by self-facilitating, and if needed, gently interjecting to help the facilitator.

Here are some key tips for facilitating board meetings that will create strong decisions and a board culture your co-op can be proud of.

1. Create a thoughtful agenda.

Effective facilitation begins with agenda planning. A well-planned agenda helps everyone feel at ease during a meeting and fosters trust from the outset.  Circulate a request for agenda items in advance of the board meeting, and warn board members that not every item will be addressed.  It’s common and helpful for the board president to decide what to include on the agenda.  Remember to refer to the board’s annual workplan and check in with the General Manager and other board officers. Just because an item is interesting does not mean it belongs on the agenda!  Prioritize matters that the board is required by bylaw or policy to make decisions on.

Plan for time at the beginning of the meeting for greetings and check-ins to help people settle, become fully present, and connect with each other.   When you introduce a new item take the time to add an “extra” sentence of explanation describing what is about to happen and the purpose and intended outcome. Remember that extra context is especially helpful for new board members and guests.

Be realistic and clear about timeframes when you set your agenda.  It can be tempting to lump a group of committee reports into a shared time-block, but it can create issues if one committee has a big report to make or a loquacious chairperson.  Creating clear boundaries helps hold presenters accountable to the agenda timeframes.

2. Know your board’s process for decision.

The most common decision structures are: majority vote, modified consensus[1], and formal consensus[2].  Many people are intuitively familiar with the majority vote.  Modified consensus and formal consensus can require more training to use well, and may also call for different facilitation structures. It is well worth the time to learn as much as you can about your board’s decision process.

3. Formal structures support good process.

Regardless of your decision-making process, having a formal process for clearly stating the proposal that is being discussed is very helpful.  If you have a parliamentarian or an expert in consensus decision-making in your midst, consider yourselves in good hands! If not, take time to learn basic facilitation techniques to support your board’s process.

For example, for boards making decisions by voting, a board president might call for a motion rather than make it independently. “Can I have a motion to approve the minutes from last month?”  And when someone responds, “So moved,” it’s the President’s turn to ask “Can I have a second?”  Once the motion is seconded it’s considered ready to discuss.  The board president can signal this with “Any discussion?”  When the discussion appears to have concluded, signaled by either circular or repetitive contributions or silence, the board president can call for a decision according to the board’s chosen process.

4. Strive for effective, not strong facilitation.

The role of facilitator carries power, and a skillful facilitator works to minimize their influence on the substance of the discussion. When the Board President is facilitating board meetings, structural safeguards are helpful, but alone may not be adequate mitigation.  Board Presidents should take care to reflect on their own opinions and perspectives prior to a meeting.  Facilitators, including board leaders, are servants to the group’s process.  If their own personal opinion has been adequately expressed by another participant, the Board President facilitator should carefully consider the utility of offering their own perspective and regardless should temper their contributions to board discussions with awareness of the positional power inherent in their role.

5. Choose facilitative devices appropriately.

Going around to hear everyone’s voice is a good technique for cooperative boards, and particularly useful on Zoom meetings because they ensure all participants have an opportunity to be heard.  For boards using consensus or modified consensus decision formats, rounds are particularly helpful for ascertaining that a decision has been reached.  Active listening, in which the facilitator repeats or summarizes a participant’s contribution, should be used with care especially by board leader facilitators.  Despite best intentions, it is very difficult to restate impartially while participating in a conversation and a mistake can undermine trust.  Take time to study facilitative techniques.[3]   Small investments of time spent learning can have an immeasurable impact on your board and your co-op.

Whether it’s on the agenda or not,  a go-round at the end of a meeting asking “how’d we do today?” creates space for both meeting improvement and appreciations.  It’s a small thing that can go a long way.

Questions All Boardmembers Can Ask to Assess a Board’s Facilitation:

  • Does our process ensure that every voice is heard and listened to?   
  • Are our decisions more wise, rather than less?
  • Do our meetings leave everyone with the satisfied feeling of a job well done?

[1] A common method of modified consensus is known as Consensus-Minus-One where a decision may proceed with one, but not more, dissenting voice.  Groups should still spend time learning good consensus decision making process.

[2] See On Conflict and Consensus by C.T. Butler and Amy Rothstein

[3] Good references include A Facilitators Guide to Participatory Decision Making by Sam Kaner et al, and Liberating Structures.

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