Where’s the beef?: No one wants to be Board secretary

Hey, Nonprofiteer, here’s my beef:

We’re putting together the slate of Board officers for the coming year, and I can’t find anyone who’s willing to serve as secretary.  Every single person says, “I’m no good at taking notes.”  Is this some status thing–no one wants to be thought of as a “secretary”?  How can I persuade people that the job is easy, and that they want to do it?  Signed, Blank Slate

Hey, Blank–As with most things in the nonprofit sector, the challenge isn’t persuading people that the job is easy–it’s persuading them that the job is important.  So, yes, there’s probably some status issue that leads people to refuse the role of “secretary” (not to mention sexism–doubtless a disproportionate number of your refusals come from men).  But if you can tell people why minutes matter, and then help them learn how to take them, voila!  Instant recruitment success.

Why minutes matter: because the job of the person who takes notes is to decide what happened at the meeting.  Obviously, this needs to be congruent with the facts, but a note-taker who’s on the losing side of a debate can include the losing argument in the minutes in such a persuasive form that at the next meeting it becomes the winning argument.  Moreover, an account of what happened at Meeting A is essential to determining whether you’ve made any progress by Meeting B.

So the role of a Board secretary isn’t to sit there passively and write down whatever everybody says; it’s to help the Board president march through the meeting agenda, securing and documenting necessary decisions along the way.  (What?  You meet without an agenda?  Then tell the prospective Board secretary you want him/her to get with the Board President and the Executive Director and create one.)

How to take them: Minutes are supposed to be short; otherwise they’d be called “hours.”  If your Board meetings are (like most Board meetings) a series of reports, punctuated by questions and the occasional call to action, your minutes should read briskly: “Executive Director’s report: only 5 enrolled in the new day-care program but expect growth soon.  Question: how many day-care kids did we project?  Answer: 25.”  If no action is called for, this summary is plenty–because if it appears in a similar form the next month, and the month after that, sooner or later a Board member will ask, “WHEN will we grow from 5 to 25?  And if we don’t, WHEN should we pull the plug?”  The point is to document where you were at X time so you have a point of comparison for later.

If there’s a call to action (“The Fundraising Committee proposed that the Gala should consist of a hot-cross-bun roll on Easter Sunday at Ann Sather’s; cost of admission, $5, expected turnout 50 people=$250 proceeds minus the cost of hot cross buns”), then there should be a record of the vote (“The Board approved the Committee proposal, subject to not spending more than $25 on the hot cross buns.”).  Again, the point is to provide a basis on which to assess success or failure.  Board Secretaries who keep that in mind make their own lives easier,  and simultaneously make their agencies more appropriately mindful of  whether or not they’re making progress.

There’s one final, hidden reason that people refuse to serve as Secretary: because the Board meetings they attend are actually pointless and useless, thus confronting prospective secretaries with the problem of creating something out of nothing.  If that’s the problem, again solve it by creating an agenda.  If you can’t think of anything to put on the agenda–that is, anything for the group to talk about–then you don’t need a meeting in the first place.

Readers: What’s your beef?  What drives you craziest about trying to manage your agency or serve on its Board?  Is it the bully who won’t let anyone else speak?  The budgeting that features revenue everyone knows you won’t get?  E-mail your problems to the Nonprofiteer, subject line “Where’s the beef?” and she’ll solve them for all the world to see.


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