Special to the Philanthropy Journal
By Kim Donahue
You’ve assembled an amazing board with a diverse range of experiences and accomplishments, but what happens when some members do all the talking, and others stay silent at meetings? Your nonprofit could be missing out on important information and insights, simply because some board members don’t speak up. What contributes to the silence, and what can you do to ensure that every member has a voice and feels comfortable sharing with the group? The tips below will help encourage your members to speak out and be heard.
Have Everyone Say Something at the Beginning of the Meeting
In my work with nonprofits, I’ve seen over and over that getting everyone to speak at the beginning of the meeting makes it much more likely they will speak up later in the meeting. Breaking that ice for new or more reserved board members at the start of the meeting not only takes away some of the fear of speaking up, it also establishes a board culture that respects everyone having a turn to say something. Try going around the table and having everyone say their favorite Starbucks order, what they’re watching on tv lately, or anything that feels non-threatening and applicable to everyone. Be creative and appeal to the personalities of your board members!
Share Agendas and Topics Early
Some board members are naturally more adept at thinking on their feet and answering in the moment than others. Your quiet members may simply be mulling over a topic or deciding what to say — and then the opportunity to chime in slips away. When you share your agenda or key bullet points with your board early, these more thoughtful, analytic members have time to formulate a response. Sharing key points of discussion also allows committee members to make more detailed reports and ensures you can work with complete information on everything from finances to marketing data and employee issues.
When you let your board members know what is coming, they have time to prepare. Your silent members may feel more comfortable speaking up if they have a chance to think things over or research important points first. A simple email sent a week before the meeting with the agenda, key issues and similar information can give your quiet members the chance to plan ahead.
Spread Out the Talking Time
Some board chairs are more assertive than others. If you or several other board members tend to take control of conversations in an assertive way, you may be inadvertently silencing your more laid back or introverted members. Some people simply need more time to formulate a measured and helpful response, so resist dominating the conversation or feeling like you need to fill in every gap in the discussion.
What do you do about that one board member who, in good faith, has a stance on every issue, and everyone on the board turns to them to hear what they have to say? I recommend pulling this person aside before the meeting. Appealing to their authoritative position on the board, I say, “Bob, everyone on the board respects you so much. I know a lot of members have opinions about issues, but often wait to see what you will say about it first. I wonder if you’d mind holding back for a few minutes on today’s topics, and let’s see if we can get the others to weigh in earlier?”
It’s important for the board chair to be able to read the other board members. If you observe from someone’s body language that they disagree with what is being said, try to draw that person out. To keep the conversation more comfortable, I have had success asking that person, “Mary, let’s play devil’s advocate for a minute. What do you think someone might say is the other side of this idea?” The trick is to know your board members well enough to tap into their personalities for a robust discussion.
Assign a Report
If your junior or new members don’t yet feel comfortable enough to speak up and be heard in the course of a normal meeting, providing them with a needed task before the meeting can help. Making a quick presentation about a recent fundraising or community event, covering some marketing metrics for the past quarter or presenting a fresh approach or idea from a committee can all make it easier for a new member to speak up. Preparing remarks in advance and presenting may feel more comfortable than speaking up on the fly.
At Boardable, we start every weekly staff meeting with a profile of a nonprofit we serve. Each week, a different staff member volunteers to research an organization and give the report. Having a specific topic like this is a great way to encourage someone to speak about something in a well-defined and valuable capacity.
When they do speak up, make sure you take the time to acknowledge the contributions a usually quiet member is making and truly listen to what they have to say. According to the Council of Nonprofits, listening and attending when someone reserved speaks is a form of empathy and a powerful leadership tool that should not be overlooked. Listen, engage and let them know they are heard if you want your members to speak up more frequently. When someone feels truly heard, they are empowered to speak up. This can lead to more ideas on the table and more solutions for your group.
Work on your Engagement
Members that don’t feel like they can speak up may also be less engaged than their more outspoken counterparts. If your organization is struggling with this issue, resolving the lack of engagement and connecting within your board can also empower silent members to add to the conversation. From giving clear governance ground rules to empowering members to speak up, you can help boost engagement and buy-in and make it more likely that all of your members will provide you with insight.
When you make it easy for your quieter board members to join the conversation, you’ll find them speaking up more. In some cases, the information they share can save your organization time, money or trouble and enhance your ability to fulfill your mission. From giving them a voice to actively listening, taking steps to get your silent members to speak up is good for your entire organization.
Kim Donahue is the resident governance resource at Boardable. Kim has over 30 years of experience as a nonprofit employee, volunteer, and board member. Over her long career in the nonprofit sector, Kim has facilitated more than 1,000 workshops and planning sessions for nonprofit organizations. In December 2017, Kim was named one of the “100 Community Heroes” in celebration of United Way of Central Indiana’s 100th Anniversary. Kim received nominations from 43 nonprofit leaders for her work with dozens of agencies.
Boardable is an online board management portal that centralizes communication, document storage, meeting planning, and everything else that goes into running a board of directors. Founded in 2017 by nonprofit leaders and founders, Boardable has a mission to improve board engagement for nonprofits. Boardable is based in Indianapolis, Indiana.