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Causes of Board Absenteeism and What You Can Do About It
by Nathan Garber
While no one would find fault with a director or trustee who misses an occasional meeting due to unforeseen circumstances, the morale and the work of the board can be compromised by persistent absenteeism by one or more board members. In this article, I’ll outline list four causes of persistent absenteeism and five recommendations for how to deal with them.
Four Causes of Absenteeism
Why would someone voluntarily accept the responsibilities and duties of a director of a nonprofit or charitable corporation and then miss a third or a half of the sessions at which the board’s work is conducted? It seems to me that there are four possible causes: unclear expectations on the part of the board, compelling personal reasons that lower the director’s commitment to the board, dissatisfaction with the work of the board, or it might simply be a bad match.
1. Unclear expectations
In many organizations, board recruitment process is haphazard, often being left until the weeks before the Annual General Meeting. Potential directors may be told “It’s not much work. Just one meeting a month.” in the effort to cajole or entice a colleague or friend to join the board. In the recruitment process, recruiters provide no information about the fiduciary duties of directors. For new board members, orientation to their responsibilities is minimal or nonexistent.
If there are by-laws or policies on attendance, they are usually ineffectual. A typical example is a by-law that says if directors miss three consecutive meetings without prior notice, the board might choose to do something about it. Such a by-law would permit a director to attend no meetings at all, provided the board was notified in advance.
Another way directors come to misunderstand the importance of full attendance is through observing the behaviour of other board members. When they see that there are no consequences or follow-up on absenteeism or lateness, they quickly learn that consistent attendance is not an expectation of the board.
You cannot hold people accountable for failing to meet the attendance expectations if they are not made clear from the outset and through follow-up.
2. Compelling personal reasons
Even the most loyal board member may be confronted with a personal, work, or family situation that takes precedence over voluntary activities. Because of the nature of most board meetings (we arrive; we do our board business; we leave), board members may not get to know each other well, and may have no idea that their colleague’s priorities have changed.
When they become aware of such situations, some boards offer a leave of absence to the affected board member. While offering compassion and support, this approach can leave the board short of members, and depending upon the by-laws, may cause problems with obtaining quorum for board meetings.
3. Lack of satisfying and useful work
As volunteers, directors need to feel that they are doing something useful, and that they can see a clear link between their activities as board members, and the mission of the organization. Unfortunately, the items that make up too many meeting agendas have little or no link to the reasons for the organization’s existence. Meeting time is taken up approving reports and decisions that have already been made by staff or an executive committee, engaging in lengthy discussions about trivia, or otherwise wasting members’ valuable time and knowledge.
If you have little reason to believe that your participation will make a difference, why waste your time? For boards to function effectively, directors need to be able to solve problems and make decisions collaboratively. When a director feels that his or her contribution is not needed, unwelcome, unappreciated, or minimized by other board members, the director will stop coming to meetings.
4. A bad match
Sometimes, in spite of your best efforts at recruitment and orientation, a new board member turns out to be not that interested or does not share the core values of the organization. Neither the board nor the director wants to cause a fuss and if there is no easy way to separate, so the director just stops coming to meetings until the director’s term expires, leaving the board with a de facto vacancy.
Five Things You Can Do to Reduce Absenteeism
When several directors are absent or when a director is frequently absent, the work of the board and the organization can be severely compromised. Decisions take longer or cannot be made at all; tasks cannot be assigned; decisions get challenged at subsequent meetings by those who were not present when the decision was made; executive directors are left uncertain about the extent of board support for their plans and actions; meetings are cancelled for lack of quorum, leaving the more dedicated members frustrated and resentful.
The overall message conveyed by failure to address absenteeism is that the work of the board cannot be very important and that your participation is unnecessary.
Board members need to know that the work of the board requires participation from all members. This message is communicated through clear by-laws and/or policies on attendance; attention to board recruitment, orientation, training and evaluation practices; careful planning of meeting agendas; and follow-up on absenteeism.
1. Update and clarify by-laws and policies on attendance
It goes without saying that you cannot hold people accountable for meeting expectations that have not been made clear to them. Every workplace has policies and procedures for dealing with circumstances when an employee is not present during their scheduled hours. The board meeting is the workplace of the board and the organization needs by-laws and policies expressing in writing, why attendance is required and how absenteeism will be addressed. The by-laws need to give the board the authority to deal with changes in individual director circumstances, director-initiated resignations, and performance deficiencies. Policies need to define the procedures to be followed in each type of case.
2. Make attendance as easy as possible
Many board activities and decisions occur on an annual cycle. Taking advantage of the known months for the AGM, funding renewals, etc., the due-dates for many agenda items can be scheduled on an annual basis. Report dates, as well as board and committee meetings can be scheduled according to the time-frame for decision making.
At least twice a year, the board meeting schedule should be reviewed and coordinated with directors’ calendars to identify any foreseeable conflicts and reschedule meetings if necessary to ensure full attendance.
Boards should ensure their meeting rooms have at least a multi-line speaker-phone to enable remote participation by directors unable to be present in person. (You may need to include authority for this in your by-laws.) Developments in Internet technology like Skype make it possible to videoconference without the expense of past methods of videoconferencing.
3. Carefully plan meeting agendas
Garber’s First Law of Board Meetings states “The purpose of a board meeting is to make decisions require the whole board.” You should not have any discussion items on the agenda that can be decided by an officer or a committee. If the board is making decisions that don't require the whole board, they should be delegating those decisions, not wasting the time of other directors.
Two tools can be used to ensure that board members’ time is not wasted on matters that do not require their participation: a consent agenda and a priority-based order of business.
a) The consent agenda enables all items for which there is consensus to be approved without discussion. Use your Internet search engine to learn how it works.
b) The priority-based order of business is based on a time-management tool which classifies all tasks on a matrix of urgency and importance. An item is “urgent” if the decision cannot be made at a future meeting. It is “important” to the extent that that the decision impacts on the achievement of the organization’s vision and mission. Instead of using the standard order of business (which places new business at the end of the meeting, after reports and unfinished business), the board meeting begins with discussion of items that are both urgent and important. Next on the agenda are items that are urgent but less important. Third are the items that are important but for which a decision is not essential at this meeting. Items that are not urgent and not important are placed on the consent agenda and are only discussed if someone requests it.
To use these tools, meetings must be planned in advance. If you have an executive committee, this would be a good job for them. If not, the chair and secretary, assisted by the executive director, should form the meeting planning committee. Part of the task of planning each meeting is to review and evaluate the previous meeting. How did it go? Did it start and end on time? Did everyone participate? What can we do to ensure that everyone is able to participate in the discussion?
4. Attend to board recruitment, orientation, training and evaluation
When successful performance in a job is important to an organization, a systematic recruitment and selection process is put in place; thorough orientation is given, opportunities for development are provided; the incumbent’s performance is regularly reviewed.
Too many boards recruit anyone with a pulse, provide no orientation or training opportunities, and let them keep their seats on the board whether they contribute anything or not. This sends a clear message that the work of the board does not matter.
The recruitment and orientation program should make two things clear about attendance:
a) Excused or unexcused absences make no difference to the board. If you need someone to be there to contribute their knowledge and experience to the decision-making, they need to be there or you cannot make the best decisions.
b) Directors who do not attend meetings may be just as liable as those who do attend if the board's decisions (or lack of them) results in civil or legal action against the board. Some legal experts argue that by not attending the meeting, they have a greater liability as they are in breach of their fiduciary duties.
5. Pay attention to attendance
As with poor recruitment and training, failure to follow up on absenteeism sends a clear message that attendance is not required. To commit to full attendance, board members must know that their participation is essential for the board to make the best possible decisions. The board must have a standard practice for contacting board members whenever they have missed a meeting without explanation and before meetings when their special knowledge or experience is important to the items on the agenda.
It seems logical that this should be the job of the Chair but the Chair is (or should be) a big enough job. Many boards have a Vice-Chair whose only responsibility is to chair meetings when the Chair is absent. Personally, my first choice is to give the job to the Vice-Chair but it really doesn't matter who gets it as long as it is a specific duty and assigned to someone. If it's not built in to a job description, it won't get done. But please, don’t give this job to the executive director. This is a board responsibility.
After a missed meeting, the "attendance counselor" should confirm that the director received the meeting package and find out if there is any likelihood the director will miss the next meeting. If there are issues for the board to address, these should be brought to the attention of the chair or executive committee. If there has been a history of absenteeism, the "attendance counselor" should contact the director after the board package has been sent and let the director know of any upcoming decisions that would benefit from the director’s expertise or individual point of view.
Many boards create attendance policies that are at best, unenforceable, and at worst, make board decision-making impossible. Creating and enforcing attendance policies must include discussion of the possible causes for absenteeism and an honest self-evaluation of board practices.
Board meetings of nonprofit organizations are not like workplace meetings or like legislatures. No one is forced to attend. There is no hierarchy. Boards are created and maintained by people with shared values and a common vision. Their discussions are not debates but exercises in collaborative decision-making. Ensuring full attendance requires all directors to feel welcome and appreciated and to feel certain that they are contributing to the fulfillment of the organization’s mission.
This article is copyright, 2010 by Nathan Garber. All Rights Reserved
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