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Board Café is the electronic newsletter exclusively for members of nonprofit boards of directors. Short enough to read over a cup of coffee, Board Café offers a menu of ideas, information, opinion, news, and resources to help board members give and get the most out of board service. Each issue will bring you a cornucopia of "Little Ideas," as well as one "Big Idea" you can use in your board work.

The Strategic Board Agenda

by Thomas A. McLaughlin (12/23/2002)


Board meetings can be mind-numbingly boring. Worse, they can be frustrating. Not frustrating in a table-thumping, vein-popping fashion, but frustrating in that participants often feel a muted sense of wasted opportunity without being able to identify the cause. The root of the problem can be found in the excerpt below from a hypothetical nonprofit board meeting agenda:


I. Executive Director’s Report: Technology plan update

II. Finance Committee Report: Analysis of overall agency profitability; Analysis of new program profitability; Cash flow report; Proposed change in insurance agency

III. Nominating Committee Update: Report on new candidates

IV. Program Committee Report: Documentation of need for new program.

The repetitive nature of this agenda, consisting entirely of reports and updates, is obvious. For a board member seeking to use skills and knowledge to advance the cause, it is depressingly flat. The homogeneity of the agenda obscures any signals about what is important and what is not. There is no indication how this meeting relates to any other meeting or to the overall mission of the organization. No one has much fun with this type of agenda, and very little is likely to get accomplished. Now look at the revised agenda below:


I. Expand Educational Program into East Side: Documentation of need (Program Committee), Analysis of program profitability (Finance), Potential board member from East Side (Nominating)

II. Increase profitability: Analysis of overall agency profitability (Finance); Proposed change in insurance agency (Finance)

III. Development of Information Systems: Discussion of new technology plan (Executive Director); Consideration of capital investment needs (Finance)

This kind of strategic agenda planning has two advantages. First, it draws board members away from the inherently backward-looking nature of reports and updates and involves them in future-oriented discussions and debate. The first agenda compartmentalizes material, while the second makes it easier to see the linkage between the items and the overall purpose.

A second advantage is that it creates a sense of momentum and teamwork toward a common goal. The goals board members worked so hard to identify during their strategic planning retreat show up exactly as crafted on every board meeting agenda. Members know that they will be able to engage in the dialog, and the back-and-forth nature of committee material makes it easier for them to engage in the discussion because there won’t be long stretches of time when they are expected to be passive listeners.

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