Techniques for increasing discussion time on your board agenda

If you want to be able to have more time at board meetings for discussions of a substantive nature about topics of strategic importance, you can make your meetings longer (rarely a popular choice for most boards) or you can reduce the time you spend on other items. 

Consider this scenario and see if it sounds familiar:

As the board meeting begins, you note that meeting attendance is not what it should be. Around the room some board members rip-open the envelopes containing their board materials for the first time while others begin reading the materials in front of them with a level of concentration that suggests they didn’t do their homework. Then, despite the written reports that each board member has received, you move through several minutes of reports by the chair, the chief executive, and various committee chairs each elaborating on the written reports they provided (or feeling compelled to give a full verbal report because no written report was provided). As the meeting progresses, board members ask questions that could easily have been answered if they had read their materials, and before you know it, you’ve reached the end of the meeting having accomplished little more than presenting and listening to reports.

Hopefully your meetings aren’t quite this bad, but the reality is that the real opportunity for gaining time for meaningful discussion comes with how you handle reporting and other routine topics and what kind of preparation you expect from your board members.

Over the last decade, I have seen a significant increase in the use of a “consent agenda,” a concept used for years by municipal boards to streamline the approval of regular or routine agenda items. Rather than moving through every item, the items that are listed as being on the consent agenda are typically dealt with in a single vote, after offering board members the opportunity to remove specific items for later discussion.

Typical consent agenda items might include minutes from the previous meeting, the executive director or president’s report, and staff reports. It may also make sense to include routine reports from committees and other items that can be easily read and reviewed in advance of the meeting (even if they don’t technically need a vote). If you anticipate discussion, or want to encourage discussion, don’t include the item on the consent agenda. We also do not suggest that the treasurer’s report or other financial reporting be dealt with on the consent agenda.

The key to all this, however, is for you as board chair to articulate to your fellow board members what you hope to accomplish (more time for discussion of topics of value to the organization and to them) and a clear expectation that board members are going to need to do their homework before coming to meetings. They need to know that they can no longer expect that someone is going to read reports to them (or even “hit the highlights”), and they need to hear from you that you need their help in order to avoid having to take time to go over material and answer questions that are provided in writing in advance.

Chief executives are sure to say at this point, “Some of our board members don’t read anything we send them now…including e-mail messages. If we don’t go over basic information in our meetings, how will they ever know what is going on?” Of course, you don’t know until you try it which board members will do their homework and which will not, but I don’t think it makes sense to take significant time during your meetings to accommodate the needs of a few when what you are giving up is time to have meaningful and substantive discussions that are certain to have greater value for the organization and for your board members.

It is worth noting that some careful thought needs to be given to the additional time it takes for staff (and volunteers) to prepare written reports. It is much, much easier for most people to give a verbal report than to write one in advance, so keep this in mind as you embark in this direction, and set parameters for written reports that keep things reasonable. You may also find that the chief executive is uncomfortable presenting his or her work only in writing. He or she works hard on behalf of the organization, and board meetings are the opportunity to report-in. With that in mind, consider asking before each meeting, “Is there an item in your report, or not in your report, on which you would like to take a couple of minutes to elaborate?”

Going in this direction is likely to result in a shift in the culture. Meeting preparation will be a bit more extensive. Board members will have to do their homework. And the reality is that some board members still won’t read what you send them. But, over time, you’ll find that the culture has shifted, that your meetings are more interesting and productive, and that you may even find that meeting attendance has improved and that you are attracting board members who appreciate your board culture and your expectations.

For more board governance advice, contact Jeff Wahlstrom at (207) 992-4407 or [email protected]