Rules of Engagement for Family Foundation Board Meetings

Q: Our board meetings have become very frustrating. We have differences because of family history as well as a couple of dominant personalities. The result is lengthy, unproductive meetings that sometimes become personal. How can we turn this situation around and get on with the foundation’s business?

A: This a common complaint of families who make grants together. It’s challenging enough for unrelated people to do this important work, but personalities and family baggage can make meetings even more complicated. Judy Healey, a leading family philanthropy consultant shares 10 rules for more harmonious communication in the board room:

1) Learn to listen.

2) Respect the position of others, even when you disagree.

3) Don’t talk over one another, and never interrupt. Wait your turn.

4) If the board cannot have an orderly conversation, appoint one of your own as a ‘facilitator’ and take turns at this office.

5) Keep to the times on the agenda for all topics. If there is unfinished business, or the conversation spills over the allotted time, put it on a “parking lot” and come back to it at the end of the meeting.

6) Try not to be hyper-sensitive about yourself. Don’t take every comment personally, even if there is family history.

7) Remain extra sensitive to the feelings of others, and try not to offend. Sibling teasing may be all right for the family dinnertime, but should be out of bounds for the formal meeting.

8) Strive for formality, over familiarity, in all aspects of the board meeting. Pretend you have never met these people before, and that you are trying to impress them.

9) Practice these principles every chance you get.

10) Put these in the front of your board book and get the directors’ agreement to follow them AHEAD OF EVERY MEETING.

And to Judy’s we’d add one more: Ban the use of wireless devices during the meeting. Members needs to give the board’s business—and their fellow board members—their undivided attention.