We Do It In Movie Theaters; Why Not In Boardrooms?

Last month, 31 of us convened for an intensive all-day retreat to discuss building high-impact NGO/nonprofit boards. The group included experienced NGO/nonprofit leaders and business executives and social entrepreneurs. We talked about envisioning the organization’s greater potential, creating robust revenue models to maximize the NGO/nonprofit’s strategic and financial success, comprising boards of people from diverse backgrounds and perspectives, and establishing governance structures and practices for effectiveness.

Jina Paik, manager of advisory services for the Nonprofit Finance Fund led a presentation and discussion of nonprofit business models. Craig Medwick, managing partner for the Americas at Clifford Chance, addressed nonprofit corporate governance. Douglas Weill, managing partner, Hodes Weill & Associates, and board member, Corporation for Supportive Housing, talked about choosing a board where you can add value. Laveen Naidu, executive director of the Dance Theater of Harlem spoke about transforming a board to revitalize a legacy organization. Michael Kernan, general counsel and secretary, Macquarie Infrastructure Company, and chairman, CDC Development Solutions, talked about merging two global NGO boards. Susan Davis, founder and CEO of BRAC USA, spoke about nonprofit board members thinking of themselves as "owners" rather than "renters." Fran Hauser, president of Digital Style & Entertainment and Lifestyle Groups at Time Inc. and chairperson of GlobalGiving, spoke about board composition. Naomi Waibel of Korngold Consulting talked about social media and nonprofits and understanding opportunities and mitigating risks.

As we discussed addressing vital matters such as global poverty, homelessness, education, and the environment through more ambitious and effective board governance, the group modeled one behavior that they called out as a troubling aspect of nonprofit board rooms.

Why, they asked, is it acceptable in too many NGO/nonprofit boardrooms for board members to pull out a PDA or tap on an iPad in the middle of a board discussion? The head of an investment firm noted that it undermines the gravitas of the meeting and distracts everyone in the room. It brought to mind a board where I’ve seen the chair on his PDA throughout the meeting, and another board where three out of 11 people were on their iPads even when the chair and CEO spoke.

If people can take the time to turn off their PDAs for 150 minutes during a romantic comedy, why not during the discussion of solving the challenges of people living on less than $2/day?

No one needed to ask for the courtesy last month, but maybe it’s time for board meetings to open with this statement: "Please turn off all PDAs and iPads during session."

[Image: Flickr user yat fai ooi]

Add New Comment


  • company2keep

    Thanks Alice for this piece. I'm truly surprised to hear that there continue to be board meetings that don't begin with the statement requesting everyone to turn off their devices. It's doubly troubling to hear of your experience where some directors obviously didn't take their board responsibility seriously and continued to be distracted by other matters. As a stakeholder in an organization we like to believe that our directors have the organization's best interests in mind. This clearly is not always the case.

    Cathie Guthrie