04 Board Mechanics. How they work

If you’re participating in your very first board or committee meeting as a trustee/board or committee member, then it’s useful to know what to expect.  However, even if you are a seasoned board member it’s possibly useful to remind yourself what is expected (and good practice) so you can assess how well you hold your meetings.  Alongside the basic ‘how it works’ information here, I’ve opened the discussion up around many more factors – the dynamics – of meetings that are worth bearing in mind to expect.

Firstly, the manner of meetings will be partially dictated by the rules of the organisation – the articles of association or the constitution etc – which will set out how often meetings need to take place throughout the year.  Many board meetings are monthly/bi-monthly or quarterly by default, with an additional AGM (or Annual General Meeting) taking place once a year.  There may also be additional sub-committee or sub-group meetings scheduled to tackle specific issues (staffing, finance, health and safety or perhaps themes relevant to the group such as a particular project).  And in specific circumstances, EGMS (Extraordinary General Meetings) are called to tackle various issues.

If you need to understand the legal requirements, the terminology and so on, then the Charity Commission publication CC48 “Charities and Meetings” is essential and should be read by all.

Everyone at the meeting will have specific roles (see CC48 too) with Chair, co-chair (or vice-chair) and secretary being key. Other roles such as treasurer or minute secretary can play a part. Everyone else is also vitally important as an attending trustee in order to make the meeting quorate and functional.

The meeting will have an Agenda to follow, papers will have been circulated, minutes will be taken and published afterwards, and there will be rules on how to behave.  Items will be shared for information, discussed or decisions or votes will take place.

An agenda might include:
- apologies
- declarations of interest
- minutes from the last meeting
- general agenda items – the order of business to be considered
- perhaps a review of an actions regiser
- reports from sub-groups maybe
- any other business
- settings dates for next meetings.

A useful quick read outline of a typical meeting can be found on the Big Give website here.
Or see KnowHowNonProfit for an outline here.

So theoretically you need to know where and when to turn up, how long meetings will take, you’ll work through an agenda, perhaps having read through papers in advance and prepared, you’ll share information, ask questions, have discussions, make decisions when necessary, get everything recorded and close the meeting.

But a meeting is much more than this too.

One aspect of charity meetings that needs growth is often that of self-analysis, self-review and self-development.  How is the board functioning? What skills or approaches need developing and improving in order to make greatest impact? Are we ‘going through the motions’ or are we really doing well for our organisation?

If “development” is not included in your board meetings, then perhaps it should be.  But some of this can be made to happen by some simple steps.  Firstly by challenging and asking questions.  An article here describes five questions that all trustees should ask to be better and effective.  Worth thinking about.

We also talk about a 5 ‘hats’ approach – 5 different attitudes or personalities that each trustee (or the collective board) can adopt.  These are:
scrutiny
stretch
strategy
support
stewardship
We’ll look at these in detail elsewhere, but at this stage I’m just pointing out the need for these different approaches.

Board Thoughts

Beside these basic mechanics, there are a range of themes that need greater exploration and support when it comes to committee meetings.  In no particular order:

The actors: those participants around the table all have their own personalities, skills and approaches and a board has to work with these.
Personas: at each moment people display different personas. Some are outgoing, some introspective. Some may be confident when discussing the community centre plumbing but nervous when it comes to the balance and loss spreadsheet.
The stage: where are the meetings set? is the timing right for everyone? is the meeting room too hot, too cold, inappropriate for the size, ill-equipped for wifi to allow digital meetings to take place?
Skills: who knows what? is there the right mix around the table for this to work?
Context: when this meeting takes place, where are we in the lifecycle for this charity? when in the year is this meeting in terms of the work of the charity or of the board – this can affect what and how meetings operate.
Your script: is the agenda for this meeting the right one with the right paperwork and priorities?
Dilemmas: the things that throw the meeting away from effectiveness. A non-participating board member. An over-participating board member! Going off tangent, having a row, bringing up conflicts of interest, not getting through the agenda in time and over running, questions of relevance etc. All of these ‘dilemmas’ can lose your focus.
Chores: lets face it, some of the necessary business can be dull. So how can it be done effectively?
Outside the room: what info don’t we know or have to hand? do all the trustees know the staff and volunteers, projects and funding streams, how the organisation works etc? Are the papers for the meeting on time and sufficient. If there’s things unavailable to you when you sit for your meeting, then how can you be effective?

Each of these factors go towards the overall dynamics of board meetings.  But you do need to get to grips with all the basics first.  Start by reading CC48, look back at previous minutes to see what has happened before, and then turn up ready to ask questions!  And as a part of the board – as a trustee – you have collective responsibility too for how those meetings operate.

Another document to refer to when thinking about board meetings, is the Charity Governance Code (currently evolving from the Code of Good Governance). It sets out a lot of good practice for trustees and boards and has relevance too when thinking about meetings and orders of business.  Visit the website here for all the information and download the .pdf of the code itself here.