Board Operations Part Two — Improving the Board Agenda

This column continues a series we started last week on board operations. Over the next several weeks, we will explore 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 how time is spent in board meetings and the impact that a dynamic agenda can have on productivity and engagement in meetings.

“How time is spent” might sound highly operational when it comes to board governance, and it might even sound odd; however, it is a strategic decision that requires thoughtful planning.

Deciding how time is spent in board meetings and committee meetings is deciding how you will engage your board. When we hear chief executives say that their board is not engaged, then we must ask: how are their time, their skills, and their knowledge being used?

People are often puzzled by that question, but it is a significant issue. The 2021 edition of Leading With Intent: BoardSource Index of Nonprofit Board Practices cites “how time is spent” as its third finding:

“Boards and executives should reflect on what is prioritized in terms of board expectations and how time is spent. When asked to rate how much time is spent on each board area, executives reported that not enough time was spent on:

  • Building a diverse and inclusive board with a commitment to equity
  • Understanding the context in which the organization is working
  • Building relationships within the community that help support and inform the organization’s work (separate from fundraising).”

We offer two tools to help nonprofits assess time and re-think their board agendas.

  • Linked to this article is our time tool. The board chair and chief executive should fill this out separately, and then compare notes. What percentage of time are board meetings about the past, the present, and the future? While there is no magic formula, if the majority of time is on the past, then you are missing a tremendous opportunity to solve the challenges of today and tomorrow.
  • Below is a sample of our dynamic agenda model. When board meetings are all about the past — committee report outs, last month’s financials, meeting minutes, and old business — engagement is low. If it can be shared in writing, like committee reports, please do so. Use the time in person to dive into strategic initiatives or cyclical topics of importance. When you open the meeting to dialogue, debate, and decision making, the level of board engagement will skyrocket.

Dynamic Board Agenda

I. Welcome

II. Celebrate

Take a minute to highlight an accomplishment or something positive.

III. Chief Storytelling Officer

Name someone in the organization to be your CSO and ask them to share a mission moment at the start of the meeting. The story should be brief but convey the impact of your work.

IV. KPI Dashboard Review

Dive into the data. How do you know if the organization is fulfilling its mission and achieving the impact it intends? Review the dashboard and talk about the data in terms of what is on track, off track, and highlights to discuss.

V. Strategic Initiative (30-45 min)

Prior to the start of the fiscal year, determine what strategic initiatives are priorities for the year ahead. Assign them across the year’s board meetings so each meeting then has a theme for discussion.

VI. Cyclical Topic (15-30 min)

Also prior to the start of the fiscal year, assign when annual items (such as budget approval, Form 990 submission, performance reviews) will occur to create a predictable cadence so that every board member can anticipate when these important topics will appear on the agenda.

VII. Consent Agenda

Everything that can be distributed in writing (such as meeting minutes, committee reports, and monthly financials) can be included in a package of consent agenda items. It’s not meant to hide bad news — it’s meant to be efficient with perfunctory business items.

VIII. Executive Session

Having a standing executive session keeps lines of communication among board members open and it reduces the anxiety of chief executives and staff. If executive sessions are only used once in a blue moon, the staff leadership go into fear mode. When it’s a regular occurrence, it’s just normal operations. However, our rule for these sessions is no secrets. Executive sessions are about having confidential conversations, they are not for gossip. A chief executive has a right to know what was discussed, but who said what can be kept in confidence if needed.

IX. Next Meeting Date/Topics

Remind the board of the strategic initiative and cyclical topic assigned for the next meeting and recognize any board members who may be leading those discussions.

X. Adjourn

We hope this is helpful as you decide how time is spent with your board.

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