What’s On Your Agenda?

January 23, 2012

Introduction by Wendy Liscow
Program Officer

Laura Otten, Executive Director of the LaSalle University Nonprofit Center, has been the lead consultant working with the Dodge Foundation to design a comprehensive board training series, now in its fourth successful year. If you have missed a workshop or would like to share some of the key “take-aways” with your colleagues, check out the Dodge Foundation’s Board Leadership Training Video Series. There are interviews with each of the workshop trainers on key board development issues including: the most critical issues facing boards today; the importance of understanding organizational lifecycles; implementing assessment practices that measure what matters; strategic planning tips; and how to recruit and keep strong board members.

A sample video from our most recent Care and Feeding of Board Members workshop is below. However, if you are interested in the topic of improving your board engagement through the creation of more productive board meetings, we suggest you read the complete blog post…it just might be what you need to transform your board.

[yframe url=’http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4C2by_nfBVI’]

Want to rachet up your board’s performance? Change your agenda.

By Laura Otten

My 23-year old son has his first board meeting for a nonprofit coming up. He is so excited, so thrilled at the opportunity to help, a bit nervous that they view him as a finance “expert” but his joy at the prospects of this board service is palpable. I hope he’s equally excited after the meeting.

This fear is not just a mother’s fear; it is a fear I have for the vast majority of board members attending their first meetings. Though I’ve no scientific information to bear this out, my anecdotal information is overwhelming: nonprofits lose more board members through boredom at meetings than they do through fear of fundraising! Think about that. And funny thing about this is that you can turn a boring meeting into an engaging meeting in far shorter course than you can turn a reluctant fundraiser into a confident one.

Oddly, what makes board meetings so boring is the fact that the vast majority of boards do not do board work at board meetings! It is really that simple. If you look at a typical meeting agenda for most boards, it looks something like this:

XYZ Center Board Meeting: 20 January 2012


Approval of the minutes of the last board meeting


  • Executive Director Report
  • Finance Committee Report
  • Committee A Report
  • Committee B Report
  • Committee C Report
  • Committee D Report

New Business


This process, start to finish, can take anywhere from 1.5 hours to three hours, or even five or six (as I hear far more often than I should). Assuming a board is meeting every month or every other month, a typical board meeting should last no more than two hours, with 1.5 hours being an ideal. Obviously, grappling with a large or particularly contentious issue might force a board meeting, on occasion, to go beyond that time frame, but that absolutely should be the exception rather than the rule.

In following this agenda, however, a board is not doing board work; it is merely collecting data, albeit data that it needs to do good board work. But when board meetings focus on learning about things that have already happened, things over which board members have no control—as they have already happened—boards are not doing their work. They are being sponges, soaking up important data, but data they should be using to move an organization forward, not simply absorbing; they are learning about what happened instead of thinking about what could and/or should be. This data should be shared and absorbed in advance of a meeting, so that board members are equipped to use that data productively at board meetings. (Compounding the boredom factor is that far too often these reports are simply read aloud at meetings, taking away from board members any initiative they might have.)

I can guarantee you that no board member joins a board because s/he wants to be a sponge. Rather, they, as you might expect, want to make a difference, make a contribution, give back, help others, etc. In order for any of these to happen, we must engage people’s brains; droning on about what has passed just doesn’t do that.

So, what do you? There are multiple options, none of them scary in and of themselves; they are only scary in that each signals change. All, however, must address both form—or content—and function.

Flipping the agenda

Beginning with form, the easiest, and least radical, is to simply flip the order of your agenda. Start off meetings by discussing new business. The very name of this agenda item tells you it hasn’t already passed and suggests that this is about exploring things going forward. Reversing your agenda immediately shakes things up and starts meetings off in a vibrant manner, engaging people and their brains. You should expect to see people showing up on time, eager to participate and help influence the future. Board members may even start to see the difference between being engaged and being a sponge.

Strategic Question Agenda

If you want to try something more radical, then frame your agenda as a series of strategic questions, rather than as reports. Questions which require answers yield board engagement and discussion. So, rather than listing “Executive Director’s Report,” have the Board President and Executive Director, when putting the agenda together, pull from the executive director’s report one key strategic question that flows from the report. It could be about declining participation of clients or staff turnover or responding to common pushbacks the organization is getting from funders or how to translate success in one key area of the mission work into another. The goal here is twofold: one, engage board members and let them do what it is they are supposed to do—and want to do—as a board and, two, help propel the organization forward by playing to strengths and correcting weaknesses. It is a huge mistake to think that the only time an organization and, therefore, a board engage in strategic thinking is during its triennial strategic planning process.

Using a strategic question agenda model, your agenda might look like this:

XYZ Center Board Meeting: 20 January 2012


Approval of the minutes of the last meeting

Executive Director: What strategies might we enlist to stem declining enrollment/attendance?

Finance Committee:

  • Contributed income has continued to decline over the past 12 months; what are potential earned income sources that we should explore?
  • How shall we fund the 7% shortfall projected for this current fiscal year?

Program Committee: What is the gap—50%, 33%, none– we are willing to tolerate for programs that have high mission fit but do not cover their costs?

Development Committee: Our tweeting campaign has brought in 30 new contributors in the two months; how should we design a program that will maximize the conversion of these new contributors into long-term contributors?

Governance Committee: We are having trouble finding candidates matching demographic A and D and having expertise in area X; where might we look/what might we try that we haven’t yet done?

New Business


Reports have to go out in advance of the board meeting so that board members have the opportunity to read them and each strategic question would come directly out of the content of each of those reports. Should board members have other elements of a committee report they wish to bring up, they could, but the focus is on addressing the big picture items that the data contained in reports reveal.

The Consent Agenda

Moving up the radical scale of agenda change, next would come a consent agenda. The rationale behind a consent agenda is not, as the suspicious folk on a board think, to hide or gloss over information, but rather to provide the information that is crucial for doing real board work to be distributed and absorbed in advance of the meeting so that at the meeting the board maximizes its meeting time to do the real work of the board.

To be successful in implementing a consent agenda, first must come a clear understanding of why a board would want to move to a consent agenda and a full board commitment to make that move. Then, second, must come an agreement as to what will be included in that consent agenda—generally, anything that is merely providing information and status updates, such as committee reports (but never the finance committee), executive director report, etc. What is put under the consent agenda does not vary meeting to meeting, but is constant. Third, as part of this agreement, board members must understand that they are agreeing to read those reports in advance of when the board meeting agenda is set so that, should they have something they want pulled from the consent agenda and added to the discussion portion of the agenda, they have time to notify the board president and request that the item be pulled. And fourth, the board must agree to the time line: when is the agenda set and how much in advance of that do they need to receive the reports so that they can read them and, if necessary, request something be pulled.

With a consent agenda, your agenda would look like:

XYZ Center Board Meeting: 20 January 2012


  • Approval of the Consent Agenda
  • Executive Director’s Report, item 3
  • Development Committee’s Report, item 4
  • Review and discussion of finance report
  • Insert here: key strategic question(s) that needs the board’s input

New Business


The first three items on the sample agenda, above, should take, on average, no more than 15 minutes, leaving 1.25 to 1.75 hours for the finance report and solid, deliberate discussions on matters of key importance to the future of the organization and its ability to deliver on its mission promises. At the meeting, it is imperative, and this cannot be stressed enough, that the Board Chair/President control this portion of the agenda tightly. S/he simply says, “Do I have a motion to accept the consent agenda?” There is a first, and a second but there is no discussion. This is where tight control must happen. If any person says, “I am just reading the Executive Director’s report now and I want to discuss item 2 now,” the Chair must say, “Sorry; you needed to read the Report ahead of time and call/email your request ahead of planning the agenda.” The Chair cannot waiver on this protocol, or make exceptions.

The Strategic Agenda

The last agenda option, equally as “radical” as a consent agenda is a strategic agenda. Here, the agenda mirrors your strategic priorities. It would like this:

XYZ Center Board Meeting: 20 January 2012


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

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); Report on staff needs (Personnel)

IV. Finance Report

V. Approve minutes of last meeting

VI. Adjourn

Items I-III, above, are the three strategic priorities in current play. Each committee or individual working on some aspect of helping to implement this priority reports his/her/its work to date. In this process, several things happen:

  1. The strategic plan remains a living document that is guiding the organization;
  2. The plan is monitored on a regular basis, thereby allowing adjustments to happen, if needed, then and there, not months later after things have stalled; and
  3. The board meeting is interactive and being used to move the organization forward along a structured course.

There is no generic right or wrong among these options. Each and all of these different agenda add more interaction, engagement and strategic thinking into a board meeting than the traditional agenda pointed out at the start of this blog. The right one is the one that will help propel the board and, therefore, the organization forward. For organizations feeling “bold”, carpe momento, grab a new, stretch agenda and ratchet up your board’s performance. Allow board members to do what they signed on to do: build a strong organizational future and mission delivery to the community.

Stayed tuned: next month Laura Otten talks about how to run an effective board meeting.