profitable solutions for nonprofits

Fall 2013  |  Table of Contents

Board Meetings: Time to Go Virtual?
By Amanda Horvath, CPA

Regularly scheduled board meetings are necessary, but not every meeting has to be conducted in person. Periodic virtual board meetings – ranging from conference calls to videoconferencing – can offer significant benefits for both organizations and their board members.

Making Attendance Easier

As anyone involved in nonprofit management knows, it can be difficult to always secure full board meeting attendance. Board members tend to be busy people and may often travel, making in-person attendance at every meeting unlikely. Virtual meetings might allow these members to attend meetings that they otherwise could not, giving them the chance to interact and make valuable contributions. Also, required quorums usually become easier to meet.

Virtual attendance can also make board participation more appealing to potential candidates. Knowing that they will not be expected to show up at every meeting may make busy candidates more likely to commit their time. Virtual meetings can also help prevent board member “burnout” by making the time they spend more focused and meaningful.

The advantages to the organization of committed, active board members are obvious. In addition, some boards with members around the country might benefit from reduced travel and meal reimbursement costs.

Facing Challenges

Of course, effective virtual meetings are not without obstacles. Members cannot always read each other’s facial expressions and body language as easily as they could in person, potentially leading to misunderstandings or conflicts. The board chair may find it difficult to shepherd discussion and debate during a virtual meeting, especially with larger boards. Participants need to hear and be heard clearly throughout the meeting to prevent frustruation that could cause valuable input to be lost.

Confidentiality is also a concern. You must be able to trust that the board members are alone in their remote locations, with no outsiders privy to the discussions. Members in remote locations may also be more vulnerable to distractions.

Taking Steps to Success

Virtual board meetings require extensive preparation, particuarly for the inaugural meeting. Being an effective presenter at a virtual meeting requires on-point training. Do not schedule virtual meetings without first conducting and sharing research with board members, discussing the implications of such a change at an in-person meeting, and getting the board in support of the new format.

It is also important to recognize that certain issues are more suitable to virtual discussion than others. Virtual meetings generally work best for straightforward discussions with no controversy. Some possible examples are updates from program or development staff or the formal approval of a policy or budget discussed in detail at an earlier meeting. A virtual discussion may also prove useful for relatively brief meetings needed to obtain board approval for an urgent action. Virtual meetings are inadvisable for complicated issues, but with the proper technology work well for issues that involve the use of visual aids such as PowerPoint® presentations.

As with any leadership meeting, it is up to a nonprofit’s staff to organize, provide the necessary equipment and prepare the board for a virtual event. Among other things, staff should:

  • Send board members any supporting materials well in advance of the meeting and consider making them available online during the event (whether via e-mail or a secure Web portal),
  • Provide the appropriate training to any speakers and ask board members to check in several minutes before the scheduled start to avoid interruptions once the meeting has begun, and
  • Take time zones into account when scheduling the start time.

Perhaps the most critical step is for everyone to become familiar with the relevant technology. Test the system ahead of time to ensure it works as needed and establish backup plans in the event of technology issues.

Do Not Forget the Law

To avoid legal problems, check applicable state laws for nonprofit board meetings. Some states might allow teleconferencing, but not videoconferencing. Lastly, if the board is in support of virtual meetings, do not forget to amend your bylaws to permit virtual meetings before holding such a meeting.

About the Author

Amanda Horvath is a director in Katz, Sapper & Miller’s Audit and Assurance Services Group. As a member of the firm’s Technical Resource Group, Amanda conducts technical accounting research that helps the firm ensure the quality of assurance engagements. Connect with her on LinkedIn.