When you have low turnout for governance structure meetings, ask the following questions:
Where’s the beef?
If these meetings mostly consist of reports from staff or just reports generally, then they simply may not have enough substance to hold interest. Each meeting should include discussion of real issues, concerns, or questions and opportunity for decision-making by the group. If you can’t easily arrange this, then maybe the meetings are too frequent or you need to take next steps in delegating more decision-making authority to the group.
Does everyone know “The Dance”?
Have you trained/oriented new members so they fully understand the roles of all the players, the purpose of the meetings, the general substance of the issues, and the rules of conduct?
Do meetings degenerate into squabbles?
Each group needs to spell out “acceptable” and “unacceptable” ways of acting/speaking in the group to curtail negative interactions. The chair should cut all discussions off when they become personal or repetitious. When disagreements emerge that appear to be solely between a few members, they should be encouraged to meet separately to resolve such differences and not take the valuable time of the full group.
Is there accountability?
If members miss meetings frequently, regularly ignore ground rules, or make little contribution, they should be held accountable. Such folks should be asked to gracefully “retire.” To avoid asking participants to be accountable eventually discourages those who are contributing and brings the whole group down. The chair (or executive committee, where one exists) should take responsibility for holding fellow members accountable. A regular (at least annual) assessment of the chair by the members, via unsigned feedback forms, should be completed so the chair can adjust her or his performance as needed, or seek “retirement.”
Is there some “heat” at most meetings?
“Heat” here means meaningful, substantive disagreement about issues. Heat is healthy because a variety of perspectives – also called creative tension – can lead to the best group thinking, to new ideas and a creative synthesis of different ideas. And unlike squabbling, heat does not result from personal attacks, failure to listen to others, or freezing positions. In fact, if there isn’t some heat regularly at meetings, then return to “Where’s the beef?” to see if you’re talking about the right stuff!