Top Tips for Virtual Board Meetings

7 October 2020 | By Naomi Chapman

Across the country, charity boards have been meeting virtually for six months, and will likely continue to do so for at least six months more[1]. For all the benefits of meeting virtually – including boosting accessibility of the board, increasing attendance, and allowing flexibility in meeting times and frequency – there remain challenges with meeting in this new format. 

 

In this piece, Cause4 sets out five top tips for effective virtual board meetings.

 

An appropriate agenda is more important than ever: ensure that the structure of your agenda changes for the virtual environment. As you get used to holding virtual board meetings, you will gain more of a sense of the pace and style of the board in this format, but to begin with prioritise fewer, more important points to ensure all business is covered. Once you have a better understanding of the pace of virtual board meetings, this can be revised. 

Ensure that the Chair or Secretary circulates this agenda in advance of the meeting, with clear indications of where Trustees will be asked to make decisions, and where points are included for update or discussion. Follow this structure in the board meeting, but ensure not to move on to subsequent points with allowing everyone a chance to discuss each point fully. If you notice areas where the agenda is not working in the virtual format, note this and revise the structure for future meetings. 
 

Encourage input from everyone – though how you do this depends on the size of your board, and the personalities that make this up! The virtual format can make some individuals less likely to speak up, especially if they are muted by default. If you have a small board, consider if muting by default is necessary, and if it is, consider how else you might encourage spontaneous contribution or participation. 

Input from everyone is vital to ensure all perspectives and expertise are being considered when taking key decisions. One way of encouraging participation is through starting the meeting with an exercise in which everyone says something – around a particular theme or question – that breaks the virtual ice and makes further contribution in the meeting feel less daunting. 

If you feel that not everyone is inputting in the virtual format, consider alternative methods of communication. It could be that each Trustee is given a window after each meeting to email through further thoughts or questions, or that the Chair reaches out for 1:1 calls with particular Trustees who do not contribute in the online group setting.
 

Create a list of golden rules - Boards should develop a short document that outlines the rules of engagement for virtual meetings. As your governance culture shifts, and established norms of virtual governance emerge, ensure that this is kept up to date, and consider whether the rules emerging are allowing Trustees strong enough governance oversight. 

Don’t be afraid to change how you are governing virtually, or to experiment. This is an evolving practice, and all Trustees are adapting to new ways of working to ensure effective scrutiny and strategy. 
 

Circulate papers well in advance: whilst this should always have been the case, it is more important now in a virtual setting that Trustees have had the chance to read through and think of questions and challenges in advance. As virtual meetings allow for less natural conversation that might prompt questions for Trustees, this preparation will allow for more strategic discussion and sufficient scrutiny from the board. 
 

Make processes crystal clear. If you have established new decision making structures (such as subcommittees, emergency response groups, or advisory boards) in response to Covid-19ensure that the parameters of these groups are determined by the full board and that every Trustee understands how they can stay up to date with decisions taken by these bodies, and what they still get to vote on and approve. Once agreed, these processes should be written down, voted on at a meeting and signed by the Chair. 

Whilst these structures can be effective in speeding up decision making, it is important that they do not disempower the full board – this is vital both in terms of how motivated Trustees will be to be active in board meetings; and as Trustees remain legally responsible for these decisions. 

Other parameters are just as important to determine – how long will these structures last for? Do they need to be regularly voted on by the full board in order to continue existing? Make sure these are clear and understood by all.
 

Virtual board meetings are a learning curve for every charity nationally, and hopefully in time established best practice will emerge for the sector. How has your board adapted to holding board meetings virtually? Do you have any top tips for retaining the efficacy of board meetings? Let us know on Twitter at @TrusteeLeaders.

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