Who likes nonprofit board meetings? Please raise your hands… Board members often have a full-time job. They put in a long day, then skip dinner with the family so they can have cold pizza and room temperature soda, gathered around a conference table.

You and your leadership team have painstakingly prepared outlines, written reports, and maybe even a powerpoint. You’ve worked hard to think through answers to all the questions the directors may ask about the items on the agenda. And yet somehow all that effort seems to be falling flat. Is there anything you can do to spice things up?

First, let’s agree up front that productive board meetings are a critical part of leading well. Therefore, they’re not optional. Let’s also agree that effective meetings are essential for long-term agency success. Getting everyone on the same page, going in the same direction, is vital to making a bigger impact with your nonprofit. If you need help structuring your board meetings to make them more effective, check out 10 Ways to Have Better Board Meetings.

But assuming you have a good plan, you’re prepared, and you’re following all the steps for a productive meeting, why are you still struggling to get interest?

Board meetings can often be dry and seem repetitive, with more talk than action. A few rough board meetings and you can quickly end up with disengaged directors. In fact, directors site bad board meetings as one of the top reasons they resign from a board. So what can you do?

How can you engage your directors in meaningful conversation and get the input you need to make good decisions?

5 Questions You Can Ask to Engage Your Board Members

As soon as your next meeting begins, announce to the board you’re going to try something new. You’re going to take the first 15-30 minutes of the board meeting and ask them to reflect on and then share their thoughts on an important question about the agency. (My suggestion is to only use one of these per month, so you allow the directors to really think through their answer, not just react to your question.)

1. Assume we are an entirely brand new board and leadership team. We’ve been brought into this agency overnight and handed the problems and issues the agency currently faces. What are the top 3 things we should do immediately?

2. Let’s assume we’re holding another board meeting 3 years into the future. We’re excited because we’ve been so successful in our mission. Looking back from then, what decisions did we make today, what actions did we take today, that setup the success we are enjoying three years from now?

3. Pick one of the agency’s Core Values and go around the table to ask each director what that value means to him or her. What does it look like when they see it happening at the agency?

4. Read 2-3 letters (in confidence) from recent clients who used your services and took the time to write a thank you note. Ask the board for their reaction and how those letters might impact their work in the future.

5. Ask the board, “If we were creating and starting out our agency today — brand new — what skill sets would we have on the board? What would the board look like?  How would the organization be set up?

How Can These Questions Help?

Your directors want to engage at meetings, share insights, and feel like the are making a difference. It can be difficult to make that happen if 95% of your board meetings focus on agenda items, checklists, approvals, numerous committee updates, and discussing challenges. While all of these things can be critical, the best way to get your board members involved and contributing is to push them to some higher level thinking.

To lead a more engaging board meeting, start your directors in the right frame of mind, and get them thinking about possibilities. Encourage an open dialogue. Once the room “opens up” you can move to more of your traditional agenda items. You’ll find your directors more engaged, more optimistic, more open-minded, and more interested in actively contributing to the conversation.

These 5 questions can help unleash creativity, reinforce your team building efforts, and make for a livelier meeting. They might even help improve future attendance… 

Need a little more help? Board meetings can be tough. If your board is struggling, you may want to check out 5 Ways to Increase Board Effectiveness. These critical elements can give you insight into some core challenges your board may be having, and what you can do to make things better.