Before the Board Meeting

Collaborate, then wisely build the board meeting agenda.

by Dan Busby and John Pearson

 

What should be the board’s job outline?
It seems to me the best way to look at that question
is to see it through the prism of the agenda.[1]

Max De Pree

 

Few board members would question the importance of starting with a good agenda for a board meeting or board retreat. That is usually where the agreement ends. However, there are various ways the agenda can be established, depending on who develops the agenda and how the agenda is used in the meeting.

Consider Luis, who chairs a ministry board. When it comes to building the agenda, Luis believes this responsibility is totally his. He does ask the ministry CEO, Sarah, for any agenda additions. But Luis ultimately decides what is on the agenda, the sequence of the items, and the time allotted to each item. How does the CEO feel about this process? She likely feels excluded from the planning and wishes it was more collaborative.

Then there is Zuri, who chairs another ministry board. She leaves every aspect of the agenda to Alejandro, the ministry’s executive director. Zuri doesn’t even see the agenda until she arrives for the board meeting. Zuri is not stepping up to her board chair responsibilities because she does not provide any input on the agenda.

Charles chairs yet another ministry board. He works closely with the ministry’s CEO, Carol, to develop the board agenda, determine the optimal sequence of the agenda items, and allocate time to each agenda item. Charles and Carol are confident that, through this participatory process, they have prepared an agenda that will effectively serve both the board and the ministry.

A collaboratively developed agenda provides guardrails for a productive board meeting. Providing and following time estimates for each agenda item will help the board stay within reasonable time constraints. A sound agenda also protects the staff from meddling board members. The use of an open agenda, where the board meeting begins with a blank sheet of paper, provides none of these advantages.

Here are seven significant principles for board meeting preparation:

  1. Pray for the board meeting. Well ahead of the board meeting, it should be bathed in prayer by board members and staff. Here is the principle: If we don’t invoke the blessing of the Almighty in our board meetings, we don’t need to meet.
  2. Create a high comfort level with the agenda. When a board meeting agenda is finalized, both the board chair and the ministry’s leader should have a high comfort level with the agenda. Otherwise, one or the other—or both—go into a board meeting with unnecessary anxiety.
  3. Allow for reconnection. Relationships happen in the margin, sometimes called “white space.” Plan for adequate time for board members to reconnect with each other before delving into the agenda. Time for reconnection of board members increases in importance for boards that meet less frequently. This reconnecting could occur over a meal before the board meeting, or perhaps by sharing prayer requests followed by a time of prayer.
  4. Minimize minutiae. One of the major tasks of a board agenda is to minimize minutiae. Here are several ideas to reduce boardroom clutter:
  • Create a consent agenda for routine matters, wrapping several motions into one.
  • As opposed to staff delivering full reports during the meeting, provide the written reports to the board in advance and allow only a time for Q&A during the meeting.
  • Assign time estimates to each agenda item, building in a buffer to provide the board chair with flexibility when productive discussion goes longer than expected.
  1. Provide time for heavy lifting. When the board agenda includes one or more weighty issues, generously allocate time on the agenda for these special issues.
  2. Frame all actions. Always frame potential board actions. How many times have you endured the pain of watching board members wordsmith a resolution from scratch?

When board meeting materials are sent to the board in advance, the intent of every agenda item must be clear. There are usually three options: (1) inform, (2) accept, (3) or approve. If approval of an item is sought, the proposed written resolution should be included. Of course, the board may change the wording of the proposed resolution, but the mere fact that the discussion starts with a carefully worded motion means that finishing the approval process is much more productive.
 

  1. Allow adequate time for the executive session. Boards occasionally need time to meet without staff who report to the CEO. There is a certain awkwardness when a staff member, other than the CEO, serves on the board. Let’s face it. Some topics can be more openly discussed in the absence of staff. But there they sit—simply exercising their “right” to be in the boardroom since they are an elected member.

Yes, there are times when the board should meet with the CEO recused. These times include consideration of the CEO compensation package and to discuss periodic performance reviews.

A truly exceptional board does not follow routine agendas or borrow another board’s latest fad or formula. A truly exceptional board builds a governance structure and constructs a meeting agenda with serious intentionality and thus addresses the important and specific needs of its own unique organization.

God often works through processes as mundane as building the board agenda. Both the ministry’s top leader and the board chair should bathe the agenda in prayer to allow the Holy Spirit to guide the board members during the meeting.

Ed McDowell aptly observes, “The agenda is the board chair and the CEO’s discerning process for aligning with God, His purposes, His will.”[2]

 

BOARDROOM LESSON
_______________________________

Preparing a quality board agenda is a prerequisite
for a quality board meeting.
A perfunctory board agenda destines the board
to a perfunctory board meeting .

  Board Action Steps:

  1. Plan: Either invest time and effort before the board meeting or pay at your leisure for not giving the board meeting the priority it deserves .
  2. Collaborate: The CEO and board chair should collaborate together in drafting the board agenda .
  3. Allocate: Finalize the agenda, setting time allotments for each agenda item. (Note: A template, “Quarterly Board Meeting Agenda & Recommendations,”  is also included in the book, ECFA Tools and Templates for Effective Board Governance: Time-Saving Solutions for the Nonprofit Board by Dan Busby and John Pearson (Winchester, VA: ECFAPress, 2019).

 

Prayer

Lord, help us prepare a quality board agenda
as the basis for an impactful board meeting. Amen.

 

 

[1] Max De Pree, Called to Serve: Creating and Nurturing the Effective Volunteer Board (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2001), 23.

[2] Ed McDowell, “Before the Board Meeting,” Lessons From the Nonprofit Boardroom (blog), December 20, 2017, http://nonprofitboardroom.blogspot.com/2017/12/welcome-to-lessons-from-nonprofit.html.

 

From Lessons From the Nonprfit Boardroom: 40 Insights for Better Board Meetings, 2018, www.ECFA.org/KnowledgeCenter.


This text is provided with the understanding that ECFA is not rendering legal, accounting, or other professional advice or service. Professional advice on specific issues should be sought from an accountant, lawyer, or other professional.

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