Leading Boards in a Virtual World

by | Mar 17, 2021 | Announcements

Arnold Baker was worried. As board chair of the Davis County Food Bank, he perceived a gradual decline in the sense of connection trustees felt with the organization and between one another over the course of 2020. He suspected it had to do with the board’s move to virtual meetings due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and feared it was a primary reason why board discussions had stalemated over whether to expand food-bank services to a new neighborhood.

He resolved to tackle this lack of connection and stalemate head on by adopting a few new practices at the August board meeting. Baker replaced the broad reporting-based agenda with one focused on three issues that required continual, active member engagement through the use of breakout rooms, polls, visual votes, and chat-box questions. Rather than trying to manage the many new working parts himself, he enlisted several other trustees to execute specific functions, which not only provided essential help, but also gave those members more chances to bond with one another. Finally, he scheduled a separate board social event and initiated regular staff office hours when trustees and staff could interact informally.

Within a month, board members made the expansion decision in a way that everyone felt heard. They were also building relationships and learning more about one another personally. By finding ways to break through technological barriers, the board was becoming more effective and cohesive than ever. (See this case study for more detail).

The Challenges of Virtual Board Meetings

Of course, the Davis County Food Bank board wasn’t alone in needing to adapt. In 2020, nonprofit boards everywhere pressed pause on in-person retreats, holiday parties, fundraising events, and opportunities to socialize, and began to hold meetings on virtual platforms like Zoom because they had to. These shifts posed—and continue to pose—many challenges.

First, it’s hard to keep people engaged. Many of us can cope with boring in-person meetings, but bad Zoom is like bad TV, for which we all have a coping strategy: Tune out. Second, it can be harder to communicate virtually than in person, because we can only register so much body language. And without in-person socializing, it’s harder to build interpersonal cohesion and bond with each other—dynamics essential to a board’s effectiveness. Indeed, a 2017 Board Source study found that interpersonal bonds affect how well boards function and noted a strong relationship between social time and collaboration. Research also shows that virtual meeting tools reduce social cues that promote bonding.

We have been encouraged by the many ways board leaders like Baker are tackling these challenges. We’re not sure anyone yet has got it exactly right, and the two of us don’t always agree, so what follows is a not manual but a baker’s-dozen ideas for how boards can make virtual meetings more effective.

Ways to Build Board Effectiveness Virtually

1. Connect members to the mission. Virtual meetings can include elements that remind members why they are serving. In fact, giving members an “impact fix”—a reminder of the organization’s positive impact—builds joy and energy, and can be easier virtually than in person. One way to do this is via short, mission-related video clips. Over the past year, for example, the music nonprofit  SFJAZZ has opened and closed its board meetings with videos of performances it produced.

2. Recruit members who found it hard to attend meetings in person. Virtual work makes it easier to bring on people who otherwise couldn’t make meetings due to geography, commute time, or family reasons like childcare. Organizations such as the San Francisco-based National AIDS Memorial, which until recently had few members outside the Bay Area due to travel costs, are now are actively engaging members across the United States.

3. Onboard new members virtually. The more-abrupt and -transactional nature of virtual working can make the integration of new members harder, especially if they’re from communities previously unrepresented on the board and might have fewer pre-existing relationships with other board members. It’s worth investing extra time to integrate new members virtually through formal orientation sessions and unstructured social meetings with the chair, other officers, or even an assigned “board buddy.” For example, Paul Levitan, vice chair of the Stanford GSB Management Board, spends one-on-one time with new directors in advance of their first all-member meeting.

4. Schedule shorter and more-frequent meetings. People are less tolerant of long virtual meetings than they are of in-person sessions. We tire more quickly on virtual platforms like Zoom for a number of reasons, including intense eye contact. Rather than holding three-hour, in-person meetings quarterly, some boards are seeing better attendance and more engagement with 90- or 120-minute virtual meetings every six weeks. As chair of the Zetema Project, a nonprofit aimed at improving the US health care system by building relationships among influential leaders, Mark (co-author of this piece) has found that more-frequent and -focused meetings have enhanced cohesion between members and contributed to a stronger sense of community.

5. Reconsider meeting times. Boards used to schedule meetings around lunch, to avoid rush hour, or after work hours. The option for shorter meetings, less commuting, and in some cases more-flexible work schedules facilitate attendance for members who live in different time zones or have strict personal schedules. For example, Liz Bender of the poverty-fighting organization Tipping Point Community said, “Our board travels [a lot normally], so many find it hard to come to in-person meetings. But 23 out of the 25 board members attended our last meeting on Zoom—one of the best attendance we’ve ever had.”

6. Minimize reporting and maximize discussion. Making virtual meetings engaging requires careful choreography. Using the advance board packet to efficiently convey important information and focusing discussion and decision-making around just two or three issues are both good practices. Daryl Messenger of Union for Reform Judaism, the congregational arm of Reform Judaism in North America, advises: “Limit screen share to as few slides as possible so that people can see each other. Pre-record information-sharing and keep the meeting about discussion. This requires a different culture about prep for meetings: Folks need to have read the material.”

7. Make sure everyone gets a chance to speak. As virtual meetings can be shorter, with tighter agendas, it can be easy to overlook board members who are cautious about speaking up. To help ensure that people chime in, Mark makes a checklist of members he wants to hear from during any given meeting. And as chair of the global movement for LGBT equality All Out, Jon (co-author of this piece) used gallery view to see, hear, and keep track of everyone without straining his neck and ears.

8. Make the most of virtual tools to boost participation. Virtual platform tools such as breakout rooms, polls, and chat boxes can facilitate engagement and increase connection between members. They help generate input from members and turn otherwise passive listeners into active participants. In fact, Baker’s case study shows that they can make virtual engagement even easier than in-person engagement. Breakout rooms allow all members to opine on issues in small groups during meeting segments that can be as short as 15 minutes. Polls allow a range of answers, rather than a simple vote with a show of hands, and they can be anonymous to enhance candor. Chat boxes let everyone answer a question simultaneously and raise questions without stopping the flow of the discussion.

9. Take charge when conflict erupts. Conflict over ideas can be healthy and productive in any meeting, but in virtual meetings where it’s harder to read body language, it can be harder to anticipate and manage well. When conflict turns personal or offensive, it damages cohesion, especially when it arises between board members who don’t have well-established relationships. When tempers or offensive remarks flare, it’s important that the chair acknowledge them and be prepared to mute or even expel members if their behavior persists.

10. Give people a chance to get to know each other personally at every meeting. People join boards in part to make connections and friendships with other members, but that’s much harder to do virtually. Leaders can prompt personal connection in an informal way by asking where everyone is and how they are, or do something more structured, such as asking members to respond to a revealing prompt or using breakout rooms liberally. Lisa Wolverton of the global philanthropy network The Philanthropy Workshop commented that just seeing other people’s homes via Zoom creates a deeper sense of personal connection.

11. Use board work outside meetings to build connections. Some boards are increasing the number of committee meetings they hold and promoting work in smaller groups to enhance relationships and build board cohesion. Andrew Barnett, chair of the community-building network Church Urban Fund, noted, “We encourage bilateral connections. We can create one-on-one pairings, task groups, and committees with the dual purpose of making something happen and connecting board members.”

12. Organize social events outside meetings to foster relationships. Sometimes we need unstructured time to get to know people. With this in mind, the board of the National AIDS Memorial created a monthly “water cooler session”—a virtual drop-in session with no agenda. Board member Lonnie Payne remarked, “At first I was skeptical, but it has proven very successful. There is always a good number [of members] that show up.”

13. Make it a team effort. If all of this sounds overwhelming, it is. Or rather, it is if you do it on your own. We suggest that chairs assign meeting roles to directors, such as greeter, chat monitor, and tech lead. Baker even uses a detailed run sheet to organize his board meeting’s many moving parts. This kind of teamwork helps build cohesion too. Peter Babudu, chair of Blagrave Trust, a foundation supporting youth charities, told us, “I do think working on things together, seeing each other in action, making difficult decisions together, really helps strengthen bonds.”

The Best of Both Worlds

Succeeding in a virtual environment takes hard work and a willingness to experiment. But many of the board members we interviewed have been pleasantly surprised at the results, including better attendance at virtual meetings, more willingness among members to speak up, and deeper personal connections.

Longer term, we believe many boards will operate using a mix of virtual and in-person meetings. The leader of a board with members across six time zones confided: “We used to have many in-person meetings each year, but when the COVID restrictions are gone, we will only have one in-person meeting each year and keep the rest virtual.”

Pandemic-induced isolation and virtual technology have sparked some great ideas that give every board an opportunity to be more inclusive, more connected, and more productive than before. Boards that seize this opportunity will emerge from the pandemic stronger than ever.


By Mark Zitter & Jon Huggett on Mar 20, 2021 in Nonprofit Boards