Anyone who knows me can tell you that I’m a huge fan of horror movies. Yep. And, I can talk about why horror is important all day long. Even though some may think horror movies are just ludicrous, there’s still something to be learned from all of them. Whether that movie includes serial killers, poltergeists, zombies, or homicidal clowns who travel across the galaxy in a circus-tent spaceship – no matter how hard we laugh or roll our eyes – there’s always a valuable lesson to be found somewhere within the preposterousness.
In my experience, only a small number of real-life situations have made me feel the same fear and outlandishness as horror movies. And, you know what’s on that list? THE BAD NONPROFIT BOARD MEETING.
You know what I’m talking about: You’re bright-eyed, altruistic, and ready to help shape the future of your nonprofit, while simultaneously making the world a better place. But first, you have to sit through an hour and a half of budget line-item negotiation, bickering, and worst of all, program updates. Pretty soon you feel that tension, anxiety, absurdity, and if it’s close to the end of the fiscal year – maybe even sweaty palms.
The truth is that it takes a special skill to navigate board meetings when they start to take a turn. And, if you aren’t in a leadership position with your board – maybe you’re even a new member – you may feel helpless as others attempt to dominate the meeting.
So, in honor of Halloween, I’m here to provide you with some key lessons from horror movies that will help ANYONE turn that bad board meeting into a successful one.
Lesson 1: Come Prepared
Those who survive horror movies in the end are almost always the ones who are prepared for the worst. Read the agenda ahead of time and know what the group is slated to discuss that day. While there may always be diversions in the conversation, this will help you avoid any gruesome, ghoulish surprises that might require some pre-work or research on your part.
If you’re bringing information to the meeting, such as updates on financials or programs that you’re running, be sure to summarize those details in an easy-to-read, quickly digestible format, and distribute them ahead of time. If your board is planning to talk about the budget during the next meeting, bring a copy of the budget. When the meeting starts to go awry with questions, you’ll be glad you have supplemental information on hand to help guide the discussion.
Lesson 2: Listen to the Locals
How many times have characters in horror movies ignored ominous warnings from the locals, only to meet an unfortunate end? Avoid this pitfall by paying attention to those who have served on the board longer than you or are volunteers for your organization. Often times, these people have great perspective that you can leverage, such as approaches that haven’t worked, for example. You may want to laugh – “What’s the worst that could happen if I take over BOTH fundraising and social media/marketing?” Chances are they’ve watched members like you take on too much and have seen the ill fate that befalls them.
But, while you’re listening to those long-timers, keep in mind that you may want to take some of what they share with a grain of salt. If the board has been following the same calendar of events for the past eight years and fundraising hasn’t increased, maybe it’s time to try something new. Don’t assume because it has always been that way, it needs to stay that way.
Lesson 3: Skip the Shortcut
All boards struggle for time and budget; this is the age-old quandary of nonprofits. But, if your president swears she can build the organization an accounting system because she “knows Excel” or your secretary swears he knows someone who will volunteer personal time to update the website for your Fall fundraiser in two weeks, don’t assume this is going to be easier. Take the time to evaluate whether outsourcing effort or purchasing technology would be a worthwhile investment. Don’t risk burning out your board members or pigeonholing yourself into a short-term technology solution because you want to save time right now. You could find yourselves in some real-life horror if you do.
Lesson 4: Beware of Ominous Artifacts
When was the last time your bylaws were updated? 1982? Does your board ONLY have printed lists of donor information? Beware. These ancient artifacts are almost always haunted and will bring severe consequences to those who do not heed this warning. Block off time on the agenda to regularly review your bylaws and make sure you’re keeping the most up-to-date documentation possible. This will save a lot of time and confusion when that information is needed during a meeting and could be critical.
Lesson 5: Know Your Surroundings
If you truly know your organization, your peers, and your mission, you can work with other members to make the best choices and facilitate productive conversations during meetings. It may not always be easy, but make sure you’re fostering relationships with the other board members outside of the board meeting, maybe even by inviting them out for coffee one-on-one. When the time comes and the conversation is heated, you’ll be able to relate and communicate with your peers more easily. This will ensure you aren’t left out in the cold, frozen and alone, at the end of the conference table.
Lesson 6: Think Twice
If any one of your board members suggests taking the annual retreat at a creepy cabin in the woods, or suggests that everyone take a break and say, “Bloody Mary” in a mirror five times in the dark, or asks if anyone wants to check out the building basement, or if one of your members breaks out the Ouija board and says, ‘Hey, why don’t we ask one of the spirits to help us make a decision?”
Just don’t do it.
Lesson 7: Make Sure It’s Dead
Your fellow board members can be persistent, and if they’re passionate about a particular topic, they’ll derail conversations during the meeting to drive their point home. If a decision is made, try not to let the meeting devolve. Avoid revisiting a topic once it’s closed, at least for the current meeting. The last thing you want is to lose time discussing a proposal that was stabbed, shot, set on fire, and buried 20 years ago.
Lesson 8: Trust Your Instincts
Last, but not least, my favorite horror movie lesson of all: Trust your instincts. There’s no creepy twist on this one.
You are on your board for a reason. With any luck you are extremely passionate about your nonprofit’s cause and are truly dedicated to making big changes in the world. Keep doing that. Work with your peers as best you can, be patient, and all of you – together – will help make the world a better place.