How to Increase Meeting Engagement Among Municipal Board Members

Is your boardroom better described as a bored room? How bad is it? If you have trouble convening a quorum, you have a house on fire. Even if directors show up for meetings, you probably still have room for improvement: Have they worked between meetings? Do they come prepared? Do they stare into space? Do two or three board members never do anything? Experts suggest three ways to increase the engagement of your board members in meetings:implementing high-touch onboarding, making meetings focused and forging solid connections outside the meeting.

High-Touch Onboarding

When a new member joins the board, she should get a clear view of the expectations of board members — as well as frequent contact that makes her feel like a part of the team. The following practices send those messages loud and clear:

  1. Require orientation. If a new recruit has to attend an orientation, it quickly dispels any fantasy that the board is a pro forma assignment that does not require time, dedication and work. Seasoned non-profit board mogul Jan Masaoka suggests making the offer to join the board contingent on orientation attendance.
  2. Provide a board member handbook. New York City has found it a crucial practice to create and distribute board member handbooks. They give members a place to look up questions they may not feel comfortable asking. The printed word also conveys seriousness; the very existence of the handbook says: “This is not a joke.”
  3. Set up a system of “board buddies.” New York City is not alone in assigning each new board member a “board buddy.” The buddy serves as a guide and a friendly face for the first few meetings: They might offer the newcomer a ride to the meeting, greet them at the door and sit next to them in the meeting.
  4. Check in early and often. For the first few months, the chairperson’s mantra should be: “risk overcommunicating.” He should touch base with a new member after her first board meeting and within six months of the new director’s joining. (New York City.) Otherwise, he has no idea if the new member is developing a deeper commitment or going off the rails. It also shows that you care.
  5. Work them! Thirty-year non-profit board veteran Bill Hoffman has noticed that rolling up your sleeves creates unparalleled buy-in; it instills a sense of ownership over board projects. If you think of high school or college groups for which you still feel an emotional bond, chances are they are clubs for which you stayed up all night making edits or booking flights or mapping out a neighborhood sales route.
  6. Make board retreats inspiring. The retreat could include discussion of a positive, practical book that everyone reads in advance, such as Good to Great or Called to Serve.
  7. Make newcomers feel at home. A board buddy provides one familiar face in the board meeting for a new member. A buddy does not fully address the fact that the rookie is still in a room surrounded by strangers, talking about people and issues he does not understand. A few simple steps takes away the feeling of being a stranger in a strange land.

First, use name tags at meetings so that new board members don’t avoid conversation because they don’t know names. The National Council of Nonprofits strongly recommends this low-cost, high-impact practice. If you remember the disorientation you felt when you were new, you can imagine how much this gesture would mean to you; you would not have to suffer through six months of connecting context clues to connect names with faces.

Second, include a bio of all the board members in board orientation materials. Only six degrees of separation stand between us all. Most often, though, we never discover those shared experiences that make us feel closer to other people. Reading bios of the other board members, a rookie can spot those connections instantly.

Third, make new concepts, as well as new faces, familiar. The National Council of Nonprofits recommends helping new board members get “up to speed” by sharing minutes from the prior year’s board meetings. Sitting down with his board buddy, a new member can ask questions about strange new terminology, especially acronyms. We’ve all been there: Past minutes casually mention “DR” and “HBCUs.” You have no idea that “DR” refers to a sister city in the Dominican Republic, or that “HBCUs” are historically black colleges and universities. It’s embarrassing for proud professionals to ask such basic questions; an arranged discussion can clear the air.

Focused Meetings

Municipal meetings often evoke images of boredom interrupted by conflict. Each meeting can feel like an insufferable two hours hearing neighbors vent and getting no business done whatsoever. They don’t have to be. It’s up to the board chair to consciously steer meetings so they stay on point and get things done. Six best practices can make board meetings dynamic and productive:

  1. Set limits. If opinionated members of the public easily derail the proceedings, pre-emptive measures can keep things on track. Many municipalities require speakers from the public to register in writing well before a meeting. The sign-up form (which you can provide online through your portal) has one line for “topic.” That alone sends the clear signal that speakers may not roam into every conceivable subject. The sign-up sheet can also state a time limit front and center in bold letters. With that preparation, the stage is set for the chair to cut off a long-winded speaker without appearing to take sides.
  2. Prevent fragmentation. A group conversation often falls to pieces when someone needs to find a document. In a paper-based meeting, each board member has a private set of board readings, and they have to look down to shuffle through those papers. Others may follow suit. In a matter of seconds, the meeting has lost its cohesion.

Paperless meetings can literally keep everybody’s eyeballs pointing in the same direction. A designee can find a needed document on the electronic board portal and project it on the screen at the front of the room. He can even find it quickly, as good board portals provide archives that can store historical records, relevant legislation, maps and all other salient literature. Best of all, they make all those records searchable across files by keyword.

  1. Stick to the agenda. The chairperson must be the voice in the room that cuts off digressive comments and calls attention to the next item on the agenda. If you honor the agenda, you get through the most important issues before the board. If you solicit input for each agenda, the board members have ownership; a summons to get back to the agenda doesn’t cast the chairperson as a bully.
  2. Don’t mark up group documents. Group editing can take up all the time in a meeting and breed divisiveness. Do you really want to waste limited meeting time debating whether one paragraph should be broken into two?

Board portal software makes it possible to do group editing outside of meetings without losing track of who-said-what-when. Each board member can access a shared document on the portal. She can take her time marking it up with suggestions. When she’s done, the version that everybody sees on the portal instantaneously refreshes to reflect those comments — which it also color-codes to identify the commenter.

  1. Announce accomplishments. If municipal meetings feel futile, announce every time a goal is reached or significant progress has been made. Seeing results becomes automatic if you use a board portal with an interactive goal-tracking feature. As a director, officer or staff member completes tasks essential to reaching a goal, the software converts that information (taken from time logs) into a percentage of progress toward a goal. It then displays that progress in a simple and attractive dashboard that appears prominently when anyone logs on to the portal. The chair need not make lots of phone calls to provide an up-to-date accounting of goal-based accomplishments.
  2. Thank people by name. Nothing warms up a room like a personal thank-you made in a public space. Chairpersons can boost the effect of such thanks by making them all at the end of the meeting; when they’re done immediately following the agenda item to which someone contributed, it can feel perfunctory.

Connections Outside the Meeting

Perhaps you’ve sat through board meetings in which people make constant references to key personnel whom you’ve never met or to code-named projects that you can’t even visualize. Forging connections between meetings fills in those gaps and breeds group bonding. New York City has board members make program site visits, where they can see the work being done and meet key players.

Purely recreational connections also bind the team together. The chair should host occasional parties. And members should support each other. One non-profit board member in Amherst, MA, was astonished to see most of her friends from that board arriving at her new business launch event.

These simple steps set boards on fire. Trust, respect and passion radiate through board meetings where once people nearly fell asleep. That enthusiasm is the intangible asset without which no board can thrive. Tending that fire is your most important job.


Checco, Larry, “Is Your Mission Getting Creepy?” Dec 2, 2010 at

Edgington, Nell, “Three Questions to Get Your Nonprofit Board Engaged,” Social Velocity April 7, 2014 at

Hoffman, Bill, “How to Engage Your Board — and Keep Them That Way,” at February 2013

Masaoka, Jan, “What to Do with Board Members Who Don’t Do Anything,” at

National Council of Nonprofits, “Board Engagement” at

New York City Nonprofits, “Board Engagement: Best Practices,” at

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