Last year, an organization engaged me to facilitate a session on board expectations at their annual retreat. Specifically, the executive director asked that I help the board better understand the importance of attendance, being ambassadors for the organization, and following through on their commitments.
I started the discussion at the board retreat by asking each board member to write down their best guest about the average meeting attendance was, and most board members guessed between 80% - 90% attendance. Retreat attendees were surprised that the average attendance at each meeting was actually only 66%. I then asked board members to estimate the percentage of members who attended less than 51% of the meetings, and they were astounded to learn that 37.5% missed 6 or more meetings last year.
Those who missed the most meetings could be termed “chronically absent board members”
If the 37.5% of “chronically absent board members” were removed from the chart, the remaining board members averaged 85% meeting attendance. An average meeting attendance of 85% is quite respectable, and this really “woke up” the Board, which now seemed keenly interested in improving attendance among the chronically absent (or helping them leave the board).
Instead of continuing the conversation about the importance of attendance and participation at board meetings, a few board members jumped right into exploring a reasonable and achievable expectation for board member attendance. Some liked the idea of 75% attendance, while others supported 85%. There were also suggestions about scheduling board meetings at more convenient times, offering virtual attendance options, and considering whether an absence should be excused for work related reasons.
One of the newer board members, who had sat quietly through most of the discussion, began speaking in an agitated manner: “This is ridiculous. What does it matter if a third of the board just doesn’t show up at meetings? Who does it hurt? So they just aren’t here, that doesn’t keep the rest of the board members from being active. At the end of their terms, we just find someone else who we think will be more active. The last thing this or any board needs is someone being a truancy officer, counting who’s attending the meeting and who isn’t, and chasing after board members who don’t show up. I run my own business, have grandkids, and am really busy. We aren’t getting paid for this, and it shouldn’t be treated like a job”.
With only a few minutes left on the agenda before the next facilitator was scheduled to begin, we had a brief conversation about the importance of board attendance, with a strong focus on attendance being the backbone of fiduciary responsibility and board effectiveness. To say the least, I left the room that day with the realization that many of us who work with boards make the assumption that board members understand the importance of attendance. That assumption, however, is likely not shared by all board members.
For this reason, it is definitely worthwhile to outline the reasons attendance is critical to organizational effectiveness. In fact, there are at least six good reasons:
#1: Norming to the Average
Mixing a cup of really hot water and a cup of really cold water into a bowl, results in two cups of warm water. Human behavior works on the same principle. People look around the room to see what their peers are doing (or not doing), and they model their behavior accordingly. People serving on boards with high levels of attendance and participation are more likely to attend meetings because they want to at least be average or above average. Those serving on boards with low levels of attendance, however, don’t need to show up very often or do very much in order to be average.
#2: The Cocktail Party Effect
I once interviewed a respected nonprofit board member who helped me understand the cocktail party effect. Imagine that a group of four cocktail party guests are chatting away when someone meanders over to joins the conversation. The meaningful conversation either backtracks in order to fully engage the new group member or the conversation continues forward only to leave the new guest puzzled and confused. Those who are chronically absent have a similar impact on the board. If the board reviews prior discussions and decisions so the occasional board attendee can knowledgeably vote on issues, other board members are penalized by having to sit through a summary of the last few months deliberation. If the board doesn’t take the time to bring the rarely seen board member up to speed, the board is harmed by a member who votes without understanding the issues.
#3: Fiduciary Oversight
Board members have a legal duty to provide fiduciary oversight, and this obligation simply cannot be met by an absentee board member. While board attendance alone is insufficient to meet the fiduciary responsibility, it is impossible to provide appropriate oversight without participating in board meetings. State attorneys general have on occasion conducted high profile investigations of board members failing to provide fiduciary oversight, including in California, Oklahoma, Vermont, and almost every other state.
#4: Bad Press
A state attorney general investigation involving a board-level breach of fiduciary responsibility is always bad public relations. When the investigation makes the press (and it will), most members of the public will believe the Board was either “asleep at the wheel” or in collusion with management to do something wrong.
#5: Lost Sense of Team
Boards, like all entities, function best as a team. They know each others strengths and weaknesses, know when to make that all important hand off, and know when a person isn’t a functional team member. But teams aren’t composed of people who “show up when they can”. Being part of a team means showing up at practice (committee meetings) and games (board meetings) ready to give it your best. Anything less means that board members can’t count on each other to get the job done.
#6: Lost Income
Some foundation applications have begun asking about board attendance, and this question will soon become as commonly asked as the percentage of board members making a personal gift. Those nonprofits with chronic absenteeism are much less likely to obtain funding.
If you are interested in evaluating your own board's attendance, the questions below are a good starting point: