My Advice to Boards: Keep the Doors Open

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Closed meeting. Executive session.

Whenever certain people are excluded from a board meeting, it’s a red flag. In my experience, it’s an immediate tip-off that an organization is in trouble.

Why do I say that? A couple of reasons come to mind.

First, transparency in decision-making is a very important value in nonprofit work. Closed-door board meetings are the antithesis of transparency.

Second, the exclusion of certain people from a board meeting (typically the executive director or other staff) immediately sets up an adversarial situation. Staff worry about what is being said. Board members, pledged to keep mum, do nothing to reduce the tension. The division between board and staff just grows and grows, fueled by deepening mistrust.

Third, a board that meets without the executive director must rely on its own knowledge base. This means their perceptions, understanding, and beliefs are what counts, not technical expertise or day to day management experience. One better hope board members have been listening well and taking notes about complex topics, that they are truly well-prepared for flying solo.

Fourth, without the mediating influence of staff and an audience, a board of directors can get swept up in a more refined version of ‘mob psychology.’ Extreme views can dominate and the consequences can be serious – both for the executive director and the organization’s long-term future.

What’s a better alternative to closed meetings or executive sessions? Open door meetings that are structured to support honest dialogue and collaborative problem-solving are a way better strategy. More difficult in the short term because board members have to stow their power reflex in favor of collaboration but easier in the long term because the damage to board-staff communication and trust is avoided.

Board leadership should think long and hard about setting up the negative dynamics launched by closed door meetings. Resist the urge to pull that power play. Choose to be a leader who is not afraid to do the hard work of governing a nonprofit in public.