Reflections, stories & ideas on non-profit leadership.

Easy Board Home Improvements

Living in an 100+ year old house means getting used to a life with a long and never completed home maintenance agenda. Something always needs repair or replacement. And, out there in the world there is no shortage of additional household improvement ideas I could add to my list.

Non-profit boards almost always need work too. It is much easier though to identify the symptom or the problem than it is how best to fix it. Recommended solutions tend to focus on “best practices”. Often these seem daunting.

I wondered if I could come up with some easy improvement tips for boards. Easy things are, in my view, changes that do not require any training, the hiring of a consultant, or the setting up a committee to study the idea. They are also things that one can see immediate or quick results from. 

Here are five such improvements, in no particular order. They can each be done independently of the others although the first and quickest one on the list will help make all the others even easier than they are.

1. Build a governance calendar

Non-profit boards have their own list of responsibilities they need to take care of over the course a year. These include approve the budget, review policies, recruit new board members, and plan the annual general meeting. The board’s to-do list can easily be put in a monthly calendar format.1)Boards that meet quarterly can benefit from a governance calendar too, but perhaps not quite so much as boards that meet monthly or almost monthly This calendar then becomes a tool for determining what needs to be on the board meeting agenda at any particular time.

Creating and following a governance or board calendar is really easy. A first draft can be created by anyone. The secretary is a good choice. The calendar can readily adjusted if there is an item that ends up being deferred to the next meeting. You can even add to the calendar any special events board members are expected to participate in.

A governance calendar is good group memory tool as well as a reminder that there is a rhythm to good governance work. I recently served on a board with a governance calendar and a corresponding executive committee planning calendar. We depended on both of them and used them hand-in-hand. I have created a two-page guide for creating such a tool called The Board’s Annual Planning Calendar. It can be found here under Resources.

The board calendar helps a non-profit move away from a fixed board agenda to a more planned one. Even boards that rely on the standard “old business and new business” type of meeting agenda can benefit from one as it can help identify “new business” items.

2. Reconfigure some board meetings

We all hold assumptions about what board meetings look like. One of these is the idea of itemized agendas. Boards can try to reduce the number of items to provide more time for deliberation, but that is not all they can do.2)Perhaps one of the most touted improvements to long agendas is the concept of “consent agenda”. This is the idea that time can saved by grouping routine approvals under one item requiring a single motion. This tool, essentially a single rubber stamp for a number of rubber stamp items, does little to save multi agenda item meetings Governing groups that meet monthly can switch back and forth from agenda-driven “business meetings” to bigger picture or single issue meetings. Its amazing!

Single issue meetings make for more varied and interesting governance work. You can even invite staff and guests into these focused discussions. My suggestion is that if your board meets ten times a year, try changing your pattern to seven business meetings and three single issue meetings. The sky will not fall and the Board Calendar tool can help with your planning.

I would also recommend that you not try to squeeze business items into the single issue meetings. Switching mindsets that deeper discussions require is difficult enough. I also tend to think that such meetings should not be decision-oriented. If there are decisions to be made as a result, bring them to  the next board business meeting.

Single issue meetings do require some planning and preparation. This can involve generating some questions and doing some research in advance. Some of the research can be done by board members. Here are some meeting topic ideas.

  • Stakeholder analysis exercise3)There is lots written on stakeholder analysis. One useful guide is from a UK source NCVO’s KnowHowNonProfits website
  • Review of trends in our field of work/the changing public policy environment
  • A look at sister organizations – what are some others working in our field doing? How are they different and what do we like or not like about their models?
  • Getting to know our own organization – Example is a “speed dating” exercise with departmental directors/program staff.
  • Policy dive – review of a set of related policies 4)Examples of a set of related policies might include ones that apply to the board (e.g. recruitment, code of conduct, board job descriptions), to financial and risk management or to human resource management.

3. Fine tune the chair’s work

Are you the board chair? When you took the job were you offered any guidance about your role? Maybe. How about some tips on chairing meetings? Probably not, after all the title of the job should be self explanatory, right?  Have you received any feedback since you started? Unlikely. Many non-profit boards act as if they are just happy having someone in the chair’s role. One should not mess with that.

Are you a chair interested in how you are doing?  How about some suggestions on how to better manage meetings in different circumstances? I would hope so. The chair’s role is really important. While employing a regular meeting evaluation, or a once a year formal board chair evaluation, is useful, the former gets tiring and the latter is seldom conducted in a timely way.

A much easier approach is for the chair to ask: how am I doing? Sound scary? It does not have to be. A 15-20 minute spot on the agenda is probably enough. Prepare some questions and give board members 5 minutes to reflect quietly on their answers before asking for their comments to be shared  Three questions is plenty. Here are some possible ones:

  1. Name one thing you like about my performance as board chair so far?
  2. What could I try to do more of at our board meetings
  3. What are things I do which I might do less often?
  4. Finish this sentence: I would really like it if our chair  _______________?
  5. I liked if when our board chair did/said ____________________.
  6. Are there organization or board issues that, in the past, have required more active or firmer chairing?
  7. What are some board meeting situations, perhaps from the past, where a more laid back approach is better?

As chair you could consider writing your three questions on a flip chart or white board, or prepare a hand out with space to write. The reflection time is important in generating genuine and useful feedback. If you are worried that you will not get good feedback verbally, you might be strategic about who you select as the first person to comment.

Before you embark on this exercise, think too about how you are going to respond to any ideas offered. You may not do it immediately but you could in an e-mail before the next board meeting and then at the beginning of that meeting. Keep in mind that your bravery in seeking feedback, especially verbal, will bolster board trust. The feedback will also provide you with a stronger mandate in helping lead the board.5)I would add that a director considering the chair’s job could assess the board’s expectations of the role before stepping into it using similar questions

As board chair you could take this initiative even further and propose (or review) your board chair job description. A sample one can be found on this website. This would serve to highlight your duties around the board table as well as away from the board table.

4. Cut out several board financial reports

A financial report, usually delivered by the ED, is a commonplace feature of most board meetings. Indeed, it is taken for granted that such a report is a mandatory agenda item. Many non-profits however can forgo a routine financial report some of the time.  Oh, you say? Is this not blasphemy? Well, not in my book.

Why consider this? One reason is that the financial report looks backwards not forward. Boards do not do much of the latter. Often the financial report it becomes so routine that it requires no deliberation and no action by the board. Do you really want to spend time on this every meeting?

The idea of a less frequent financial reports as a meeting agenda item makes sense for organizations with a good budgeting process, relatively stable and predictable revenue and expenditures and an experienced executive director.6)Situations where a board should have monthly financial reports include: organizations with volatile revenue and/or expense numbers, groups under threat of losing funding, those in the midst of a large capital project, those without a good set of financial management policies, and organizations with a new executive director In such situations quarterly reports are often fine. This frees up agenda time in some meetings for other matters and, when the financial reports are given, allows more time to really look at any issues.

So, how do you do this? It probably requires that the treasurer and executive director agree to request this as a board agenda change, give their reasons, and, if approved, adjust the board calendar to indicate when the quarterly reports are to be scheduled. As I Indicated above the quarterly reports should then be more thorough and focused.7)The quarterly reports could, in addition to an update on the key numbers, be focused as follows: (1) next years’s budget proposal; (2) year end report/auditors report; (3) Mid year review; (4) particular financial issues and changes

Boards reluctant to let go of monthly financial reports could choose to receive a written report as part of their board meeting package as an information item only.

5. Reorganize the executive director’s report

If you are the executive director of your non-profit then improvements to your written executive director’s board report might be worth considering. Perhaps it could be shorter, more interesting to construct and read, and contain information more relevant to the board’s job.

If you are a board member you could send your ED an e-mail asking her what she thinks of the ideas below. It is easy to get the ball rolling on this change if the board has not really considered the format of the report before.

Piecing together bits of advice from what few sources I can find, here are four headings to consider in re-organizing the report.8)These heading are inspired by two useful ED board report templates. One from 2015 by US non-profit consultant, Joan Garry. The other is from the 2016 resource, ED Report Guide, provided by the Ontario Organizational Development Program, a body that has been set up to build capacity in AIDS organizations in that province This particular set of headings discourages EDs from including in their report a listing their activities since the last board meeting. The financial report, also usually given by the ED, is a separate report.

  1. Significant issues: Current significant organizational issues, including updates on issues discussed and/or decided upon at previous board meetings, for which the ED, rather than the board, is responsible
  2. Matters requiring a decision or an approval not covered elsewhere on the board’s agenda and not addressed by existing policies
  3. Strategic plan implementation: List of accomplishments or achievements on current organization goals since the last report.
  4. Current performance indicators or organizational dashboard report.9)An organizational performance dashboard is something a non-profit leadership should construct. Eight to ten indicators is often enough. These could include 3 indicators on client or service outcomes, 3 related to personnel or HR development, and 3 that are financial health focused. For more on the dashboard idea see, for example, this item the popular non-profit blog Blue Avacado

This format, or one like it, really speaks to organizational performance. How are we doing, rather than what is the executive director doing. Using this format sections 3 & 4 are likely to be the most important parts and, from one month to the next, there may be little to report under 1 & 2. Thats OK.

How do you effect this change? Well, the quickest way, if you are the ED is to present the report in the new format and see what the board thinks. Alternatively, ask the board if they would be willing to try a new format for the next board meeting. Rather than have them discuss the pros and cons of the change in the abstract, see if they would be willing to experience it first.  

While you are at it there are two options your board might consider in terms of how the executive director report fits into your regular board meeting agenda.

  • The ED report as a separate agenda item. This is most common.
  • The ED report is not an agenda item itself but instead provides the board with background for the discussion of other agenda items, especially where the agenda is built around key organizational objectives or strategic plan implementation

Now get going!

If you are a board member, a board chair or an executive director you can get going on at least one of these board home improvement ideas. Don’t wait until the next meeting to get started. So set aside a little time. No special tools are needed.

References   [ + ]

1. Boards that meet quarterly can benefit from a governance calendar too, but perhaps not quite so much as boards that meet monthly or almost monthly
2. Perhaps one of the most touted improvements to long agendas is the concept of “consent agenda”. This is the idea that time can saved by grouping routine approvals under one item requiring a single motion. This tool, essentially a single rubber stamp for a number of rubber stamp items, does little to save multi agenda item meetings
3. There is lots written on stakeholder analysis. One useful guide is from a UK source NCVO’s KnowHowNonProfits website
4. Examples of a set of related policies might include ones that apply to the board (e.g. recruitment, code of conduct, board job descriptions), to financial and risk management or to human resource management.
5. I would add that a director considering the chair’s job could assess the board’s expectations of the role before stepping into it using similar questions
6. Situations where a board should have monthly financial reports include: organizations with volatile revenue and/or expense numbers, groups under threat of losing funding, those in the midst of a large capital project, those without a good set of financial management policies, and organizations with a new executive director
7. The quarterly reports could, in addition to an update on the key numbers, be focused as follows: (1) next years’s budget proposal; (2) year end report/auditors report; (3) Mid year review; (4) particular financial issues and changes
8. These heading are inspired by two useful ED board report templates. One from 2015 by US non-profit consultant, Joan Garry. The other is from the 2016 resource, ED Report Guide, provided by the Ontario Organizational Development Program, a body that has been set up to build capacity in AIDS organizations in that province
9. An organizational performance dashboard is something a non-profit leadership should construct. Eight to ten indicators is often enough. These could include 3 indicators on client or service outcomes, 3 related to personnel or HR development, and 3 that are financial health focused. For more on the dashboard idea see, for example, this item the popular non-profit blog Blue Avacado
Grant MacDonald

Written by Grant MacDonald

Grant MacDonald is a former Associate Professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. For more than two decades, Grant has provided workshops, courses and print resources to a variety of small and medium sized non-profit organizations. Helping volunteer boards and executive directors to govern with purpose, passion, intellect and humour continues to engage and challenge him.

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  1. kristen

    Hello Grant, thanks so much for this great post. I’m the new ED to a learning and performance organization and the board has a lot of work to do! I’m giving a little presentation to my workplace about good governance and these ‘home improvements’ are easy for them to understand. I enjoy reading your resources! Thanks so much

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