Board Operations Part Three — Meeting Topics

This column continues a series on board operations. Over the last few weeks, we have explored various topics on board governance to build the capacity of the sector. Of all the conversations that we have with nonprofit leaders, board governance issues always rise to the top.

Today we focus on the importance of strategic initiatives and cyclical topics in board meetings when using a dynamic agenda as described in last week’s column.

The annual board cycle, as illustrated below, is a way to map out the board meetings of any given fiscal year. Start with annual items — what things occur at specific times each year? This can include budget forecasting, audit approval, performance reviews, gala planning, etc. Documenting when major annual items happen creates a predictable cadence for both board members and staff.

The sample illustration includes one to three cyclical topics per meeting (yes, we advocate for an every-other-month board meeting structure).

What would this illustration look like for your organization?

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Once the cyclical items are documented, then it’s time to begin thinking about the current and upcoming fiscal year. What big strategic issues need to be addressed over the next 12 months? These items are different from cyclical topics because they do not occur annually. For instance, creating a CEO succession plan or embarking on a capital campaign feasibility study will happen maybe once every five to ten years.

Determining the strategic topics to be discussed is a powerful board exercise that deepens engagement. Once the strategic initiatives have been identified, then determine which months they will be discussed, and which board members will be assigned to help lead those discussions.

Spending as much as 45 minutes diving into those initiatives will allow you to solve challenges and leverage opportunities. And it’s a heck of a lot better than 45 minutes of committee report outs. We have seen how board engagement and satisfaction improve when these types of changes are made to the board meeting structure.

When you dedicate the bulk of the board meeting to cyclical topics and strategic initiatives board meetings can be done in 90 minutes or less.

How is that possible? Use a consent agenda for all the written committee reports, meeting minutes, monthly financials, etc. that can be packaged together and approved at once. BoardSource states:

“Standard, repetitive items often eat up the agenda and not enough time is left to focus on serious deliberation. Consent agendas are one way of liberating the allotted meeting to important issues requiring careful discussion. The benefit: board members become more actively engaged in preparing for the meeting and in deciding what the key issues are.”

In terms of good board governance, the consent agenda is not where things go to be hidden. Anything should be allowed to be pulled from the consent agenda and openly discussed if a board member has questions or concerns. When used properly, meetings are more productive and board members are more engaged.

Let us know how your annual board cycle looks once you work through this exercise with your board.

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