Your nonprofit’s board of directors makes crucial financial, legal and strategic decisions on a regular basis. But this decision making doesn’t always need to be performed up-close and personal in the same room, at the same table. Many not-for-profits hold virtual board meetings via phone and online tools. This approach has plenty of appeal, although it may not suit every board and every board meeting.
Participation may improve
As anyone involved in nonprofit management knows, it can be difficult to secure full board meeting attendance. Board members tend to be busy people and may travel frequently, making in-person attendance by every member at every meeting unlikely. Plus, many organizations support a national or international mission and appoint board members from around the globe.
Going virtual might allow members to attend meetings they otherwise couldn’t, giving them the chance to interact and make valuable contributions. Also, required quorums usually become easier to meet.
Virtual attendance also can make board participation more attractive to potential members. Knowing they won’t be expected to show up in person at every meeting may make busy candidates more likely to commit their time. Plus, virtual meetings can help prevent board member burnout by making the time they spend more focused and meaningful.
The advantages to the organization of committed, active board members are obvious. And boards with worldwide members would likely benefit from reduced travel and meal reimbursement costs.
Obstacles may arise
Of course, virtual meetings aren’t without obstacles. In teleconferences, participants won’t be able to read each other’s facial expressions and body language. Even in videoconferences, participants may be unable to observe these cues as easily as they could in person. This can potentially lead to misunderstandings or conflicts.
The chair can find it difficult to shepherd discussion and debate, especially with larger boards, where there may be a greater chance of multiple people trying to talk at once. Conversely, more reticent board members may completely clam up during a virtual meeting. Of course it’s critical that each participant be able to both hear and be heard clearly throughout the meeting.
Confidentiality also is a concern. You must be able to trust that the board members are alone in their remote locations, with no outsiders privy to the discussions.
Preparation is key
Virtual board meetings require extensive preparation, particularly for the inaugural meeting. And being an effective presenter at a virtual meeting requires on-point training. So don’t spring a virtual meeting on board members without first conducting and sharing research, discussing the implications of such a change at an in-person meeting, and getting the board, well, on board.
Recognize, too, that certain issues are better suited to virtual discussion than others. Virtual meetings generally work best for straightforward discussions with no controversy — for example, updates from program or development staff or the formal approval of a policy or budget discussed in detail at an earlier meeting. They also may prove useful for relatively brief meetings needed to obtain board approval for an urgent action.
Virtual meetings are more difficult for complicated issues (though the use of visual aids such as PowerPoint® presentations can help). And recognize that voting on any issue will need to be verbal and not anonymous, with each board member identifying himself or herself along with an aye or nay.
As with any leadership event, it’s up to your nonprofit’s staff to organize the virtual meeting, ensuring that everyone has the necessary equipment and is properly prepared. Among other things, staff should send board members any supporting materials well in advance of the meeting and consider making them available online during the event, whether via e-mail or a secure Web portal.
If there will be speakers, provide the appropriate training in advance of the meeting to help things go smoothly. Ask board members to check in several minutes before the scheduled start to avoid interruptions once the meeting has begun. Also take time zones into account when scheduling the start time.
Perhaps the most critical step is for everyone to become familiar with the relevant technology. Test the system ahead of time to ensure it works as needed and establish backup plans in the event of technological failures.
Keep it real
Sidebar: Check state laws and your bylaws
Don’t switch to virtual meetings without doing your homework. Check applicable state laws for nonprofit board meeting requirements. Your state might, for instance, allow teleconferencing but not videoconferencing. And amend your bylaws to permit virtual meetings before holding such a meeting.