By Sammi Soutar, CAE
Today's leaders convene in an era when a trio of association challenges - membership, meetings and money - has compelled lively (and ofttimes lengthy) boardroom discussions.
   Now, more than ever, volunteer leaders must find fresh ways to compress time while making meetings more meaningful, productive and satisfying, especially since committed volunteers, while invaluable, are not inexhaustible.
  A few tools and rules will keep your meetings turbocharged and on track.

Three rules
     Balance participation and engage the entire board.  Prevent a few from dominating the discussion by encouraging everyone to contribute. Call on members individually, if necessary, to ensure all voices are heard.
     Focus on the future. What's done is done. Conserve the precious time the board has together to address strategic goals, planning, and policy. Relegate the historical (minutes from previous board and committee meetings, financial statements, and so forth) to a consent agenda.
     Stick to schedules and finish strong. Respect those who arrived on time by beginning promptly. Tardy members who regret disrupting a meeting already in progress will be motivated to make an effort to arrive earlier the next time the board meets.
   Incorporating time frames into the agenda will also provide cues on how to keep the focus on the business at hand. At the meeting's close, summarize what the group has accomplished and end on a positive note, easier to do at the conclusion of a productive, well-managed meeting!

Two tools
Consent agendas and a meeting timetable can help a board leverage its time together more productively.
  The consent agenda removes from general (and sometimes tedious) discussion reports of activities past - updates on completed work or work in progress that do not require further action. Items falling into this category might include minutes from the previous board meeting, committee reports, and financial statements. Batching these "housekeeping" reports can easily trim 20 to 60 minutes from a typical board meeting. Consent agenda items are typically included as one of the first items of business. They require a motion, a second and a vote to approve but no discussion.
To rev up the pace of business, consider the "inverted consent agenda." Move all action agenda items to the top of the meeting, so that board members can discuss them while fresh and alert. Reserve the last few minutes of the meeting for the consent agenda. Convene the meeting with a "warmup," by sharing communications and a few brief announcements, followed by a motion to accept or amend the agenda. If there are items listed under the consent agenda that one or more board members wish to move back into the action agenda for discussion, this is the time to do it.
       The action-consent agenda format works even better when motions are drafted and presented in advance of the meeting, giving members sufficient time to consider proposed actions. For example, if the association's education committee planned to introduce a motion to increase by five percent the association's annual programs budget, the chair would draft and submit a motion along with supporting arguments and documentation to the board in advance, ensuring informed discussion of the proposed increase was not delayed.
         Adopting a meeting schedule or countdown can further enhance overall board productivity. Here's one possible timetable:
        Six weeks out from scheduled board meeting: Remind board members and committee chairs to
send in any items they wish to see incorporated into either the consent and action agenda, which the board president, working with staff, will then create. Also, remind board members to submit any supporting documentation, committee reports, position papers, and so forth, for fellow board members to review prior to the meeting.
        Four weeks out:  Distribute meeting notice; also make meeting agenda, board books and support documentation available via web site, Email or post.
        One to two weeks out: If you are catering food and beverage or have concerns about achieving a quorum, this is your chance to get a head count and issue a reminder about the upcoming meeting.

Meeting adjourned!
       Every so often, it helps to poll board members to determine how productive they perceive their meetings to be and to get suggestions for fine tuning the process. Don't try to conduct brief surveys at the conclusion of every board meeting, however. Getting meaningful feedback occasionally will help ensure meetings remain or become increasingly productive.
        Board meeting time saved from routine business can be focused on the strategic purposes of the organization.  With so many economic, political and technological challenges jostling for board members' attention these days, that's time well spent indeed!
By Sammi Soutar, founder, Able Management Solutions, Inc., Columbus, Ohio.