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I have, in the past, been on the board of trustees of a local non-profit organization. There is a good chance I will be asked again in the future, and there's a problem I'd like to be able to solve when that happens.

Most of the organization's activities have a strong social component,1 and this finds its way into board meetings too. For example, part of each meeting is dedicated to "good & welfare", where everybody is encouraged to share good news from their personal lives. The leaders of the organization want everybody to feel engaged (particularly as we're all volunteers), so they are also very reluctant to cut off discussion that has gone somewhat astray of the meeting agenda. Also because of this desire for engagement, the board is about twice as big as it needs to be. (A few years ago I was on the bylaws committee and made a failed attempt to shrink it.)

The result of all this is that if we have 45 minutes' worth of business to address, the meeting might run to two hours or more. Or, conversely, a two-hour meeting can only address about 45 minutes' worth of material because of all the other stuff. Nominally we follow Robert's Rules of Order, but in practice it's much more casual.

It appears that for some members, board meetings are major social outlets -- they seem not to have active social lives otherwise, often they're retired (so they don't have work to provide human interaction), and they use these meetings for that purpose. (Mind, the organization does offer many other social opportunities.) As a younger person who does have an active professional and personal life, I find these meetings very frustrating, enough that I might well turn down another nomination even though I can bring valuable skills to the board. That makes me sad because I care about the organization and want to help lead it. But I don't want to feel like my time is being wasted.

When I was last on the board I tried talking with the president (who runs meetings) and some other officers. I explained that our approach to meetings made me feel un-valued, the opposite of what they're trying to accomplish, and I made specific suggestions about segregating business and social parts of the meetings (business first, and then invite people to stick around for social stuff and maybe even bring out coffee and cookies). They didn't say no but they also didn't change anything. I haven't tried to "assemble a mob" (lobbying other board members) because of how that might appear, but maybe I should have.

Is there anything I can do to change the culture of our board meetings should I find myself on it again? Should I be trying to work through the leaders or through the board members? Should I attend but bring something else to do (visibly, perhaps) during the parts of the meeting I consider unproductive? Is there something else I can do? Or is this likely to be intractable and I should cut my losses and stay away?


1 The existing social activities are for the whole community. They include inexpensive monthly catered dinners for the whole family, potlucks a few times a year (again for everybody), "social hour" after other twice-weekly activities (cookies and coffee/tea/lemonade), Sunday-morning brunches with guest speakers about six times a year, evening lectures or entertainment several times a year, daytime outings (sightseeing, theatre, etc) a few times a year targeted at older members, and several social-action activities every month (visiting nursing homes, gathering/sorting/packaging materials for the needy, political activities, etc). If you haven't guessed, it's a religious community.

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    You say that you do have social opportunities outside of the meeting... can you elaborate? It might be a cool idea to hold a "potluck" style dinner or something like that once a month just to focus on socializing for three or four hours at a time (maybe through in a short presentation for an excuse to be "productive :P) and focus on socializing. Also, I think it may help just to get the meeting off to a good start and make it clear what has to be done during that meeting at the beginning to try to get everyone in a somewhat productive state. – Anonymous Penguin Nov 16 '14 at 20:36
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    @AnnonomusPenguin board-specific social gatherings like potlucks are an interesting idea, and I encourage you to include that in an answer. There are social opportunities open to the entire community (I'll edit the question with more info), but none specific to board members. – Monica Cellio Nov 16 '14 at 20:40
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I see two problems here: people want opportunities to socialize and/or you might not have have enough structure to the meetings.

Note: I assume you are in a position of significant authority or can easily suggest a change to the current methods. How to suggest a change to the current policies is, in my opinion, a whole other question.

People want opportunities to socialize: Humans are social creatures so, naturally, they want to socialize. If you look at a young child, you can probably see their mouth moving constantly! :)

You mentioned that some people might not get a lot of social opportunities. It might be a good idea to actually encourage this behavior; that is, encourage it outside of board meetings. This socialization could actually be beneficial for your organization! I personally work better when I know another people. Getting to know the other people on the board could make people work more efficiently together. Also, it makes people feel more welcomed, making them want to be on your board.

[As I already mentioned in the comments] a potluck may be a good idea. It's cheap, easy, and it has something for everyone to enjoy. Furthermore, it can be adapted to fit your needs (i.e. cater the main dish and everyone brings deserts).

Try to mix it up some every month with some twist like changing the location or doing a theme for the meal each month. Your goal is to make people want to come to these events and get to know who they are working with.

Structure in meetings: Perhaps it isn't that the board members feel a need to socialize, but it may be somewhat a lack of structure. If people don't realize you do need to get a lot of things done, they may start to get off topic. My guess is a lot of people have the ability to focus on important matters but just don't know what needs to be done.

Do whatever it takes... a PowerPoint, a Prezi, a Google Doc for everyone to be in, a handout, or even just a simple Word document on a projector to show what you need to accomplish! Do whatever works best for you.

You have to remember that making a meeting too formal may be counterproductive. You could make people feel bored (making them want to talk so they can do something more enjoyable) or even prevent creativity.

Ultimately, you may have to give a reminder that these meetings need to stay on topic and you need stay productive. Of course, do this in a much more friendly way... I love using the compliment sandwich. (It has a great name, too! Ahh great... now I'm hungry.)

  • I like the way you used formatting to emphasize different parts of the answer. You misspelled "compliment sandwich." That's a great technique, thanks for sharing! – Air Nov 18 '14 at 23:10
  • @AirThomas haha I think I was too focused on the sandwich part... Fixed. My spell check sometimes breaks horribly on Chrome. – Anonymous Penguin Nov 18 '14 at 23:20
  • Spell check isn't to blame - they're homophones! :) – Air Nov 18 '14 at 23:22
  • @AirThomas oh... Nevertheless spell check breaks a lot for me – Anonymous Penguin Nov 19 '14 at 0:46
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You mention seniors who don't have work.

It might be that they see their involvement in the board as a meaningful activity that gives them importance and validates a sense of experience and wisdom. However, they may not have actual tasks that forces them to be productive. I feel in such situations providing other social venues might not help, but asking them to take real responsibilities and active leadership may change their attitude during the board meeting.

It seems to me they have no "liability" with respect to the outcome of the meeting as they are not actively trying to produce change. Hence, giving them active responsibilities might force them to look for a productive board meeting rather than a social one.

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