Editor’s Note: This article addresses a strategy which an increasing number of geographically dispersed family foundations have been forced to rely upon in recent years – conducting the occasional board meeting by telephone. It is reprinted with permission from Blue Avocado, a practical and readable online magazine for nonprofits. Subscribe free by contacting the Blue Avocado editor or visiting www.blueavocado.org.

Your board meeting is Thursday evening. On Wednesday you start getting the calls. One board member is home recuperating from surgery. Another is traveling. Yet another can’t spare the time to drive in for the meeting. Can they call in via conference call? Most everyone who works with a board or serves on a board has pondered this question. In this article, we give you some tips on how to make conference call board meetings as effective as they can be.

First, is it legal to hold board meetings by conference call?

Answer: In most states, yes, it is legal if everyone can hear one another at the same time. Check with your state charity official to find out about laws in your state. (Click here for a list of state charity officials with links.)

Second, is it possible to have a bad meeting via conference call?

Yes! Take a look at our related article, Nonprofit Conference Call Bingo, for some of the ways these calls can be frustrating.

There are two types of board meeting conference calls: one where everyone is on the phone, and the other is an in-person meeting with a couple of people who have called in. Here’s advice on how to handle each type.

When everyone is on the phone

  1. conference-call-bingo-cardSend out the agenda and the notes in a single document. It’s hard for board members to be asked to open up yet a different document as the meeting progresses. Put everything into one PDF so they only have to open one and can scroll through it during the meeting. (Okay, the finance report might need to be a separate document).
  2. For each agenda item, in writing identify who will be leading the conversation and what the anticipated action is. Examples:
    Line of credit: Board Treasurer Daniel will make the recommendation from the Finance Committee that we seek a line of credit of $600,000. Anticipated outcome: approval.
    Petition campaign: Policy Committee chair Crystal will report on progress with the effort to get 1,000 signatures protesting zoning changes to next month’s city council meeting. Anticipated outcome: discussion, suggestions, volunteering to help.
  3. Try to restrict agenda items to straightforward topics, rather than exploratory discussions or discussions about complicated, controversial items.
  4. If you are chairing the meeting, be especially proactive and use names more often. “Jose, do you want to weigh in on that?” “Jessica, thanks for that concise report.”
  5. If a discussion is nuanced and complicated, don’t be hesitant to put off a decision until an in-person meeting. “This conversation is more complex than we thought it would be, and it’s hard to have a complex discussion on the phone. I’m going to move it to the next in-person meeting where we can have a full discussion.”

When most people are an in-person meeting, and one or two people have telephoned in

  1. Use quality equipment. Do not try to make do using the speaker feature on your regular phone. Get a dedicated speaker phone that allows for multiple microphone jacks (and get three or four jacks) and that has full duplex which eliminates the pause and sound breaks between speakers. A full-duplex system – e.g., landline telephones –allows communication in both directions simultaneously. A half-duplex system – aka annoying! – allows communication in both directions, but only one at a time. Good systems start at around $400; Polycom and Awaya are well-regarded brands.
  2. speakerphone-with-signPut up a little sign by the speakerphone with the names of the people on the phone.
  3. As the chair, call on the people on the phone: “Sarah, do you have a comment on this?”
  4. For discussions where everyone wants to speak, go old school. Ask those who wish to speak to raise their hand (those calling in can say, “My hand is raised”) and put everyone in a speaking queue. It keeps things neat and gives everyone a chance to have their say.
  5. Make sure those calling in have access to all the visuals and presentations being used in the meeting. It may require extra legwork pre-meeting to get and forward files from those who will be presenting, but it goes a long way in keeping those on the phone seamlessly engaged in the discussions.

Bonus tip: Establish a board attendance requirement

Unless your board is geographically far-flung, consider a policy such as, “A new board member must attend at least two board meetings in person before attending a meeting via telephone. A board member may attend only 2 (of 10) board meetings per year via telephone.”

One last reason to reinforce in-person meetings: In-person meetings build relationships among people much more strongly than phone calls do, and the “in between times” of a meeting — before, after and during a break — are important spaces where work gets done, too.