5 Ways to a Better Agenda for Board Meetings


An agenda is the primary tool of effective board meetings. The agenda keeps the board focused on appropriate information for making decisions and monitoring performance. The board’s governance policies or bylaws may determine overall board process, but it’s the agenda that determines how intended outcomes engage with current performance during the meeting. Here are 5 ways to a better agenda for board meetings:

Ask the Big Question. Ways of doing things tend to perpetuate themselves, don’t they? We join a group and begin to learn how things are done. We come to expect certain things to be on the agenda, or for meetings to be structured a certain way, or to last a given amount of time. It’s not just that “we do it this way because we’ve always done it this way.” It’s more than that. We do it this way because this is what we have learned board meetings should be. It may not occur to us to step back, take a breath, and ask the big question. Not “How can we do this better?”, but “Why do we do this at all?”

Beware the Convenience of Repetition.  This one I know all too well, because I’ve caught myself doing it. As the CEO of a nonprofit organization, I worked with the board chair to develop the agenda. We designed a good template that moved from a consent agenda through monitoring reports and information for decision making. We were delighted by how well the agenda served in the meetings, and by how easy it made planning the next agenda. All we had to do was cut and paste from one meeting’s agenda to the next, changing the dates and a few content details as we went. I’m sure you have already guessed what happened: it didn’t take long before the convenience of the repetition blinded us to important items that the board needed to handle. The template was still useful, but we had to stay alert to keep it fresh and pertinent to effective governance.

Don’t Equate Complexity with Quantity: Nonprofit organizations can be complex, so boards often assume that governing them will be complex, too. Maybe it is, or maybe not. But we get the idea that if it’s complex, it must require us to have a lot of information. A lot of information from several staff departments and board committees. A lot of information from several staff departments and board committees in written reports that are then presented in the meetings. We inundate our meetings with information to the point where it satisfies our estimate about complex this thing is.

Don’t Equate Quantity with Quality. Next to confusing complexity with quantity is the familiar confusion of quantity with quality. This takes form in board meetings whenever we get the notion that since there are reams of reports to review, we are really doing some governance.

Avoid the “Tell Us Everything” Trap. Here is the more sinister cousin of the “quantity is quality” mistake. If you haven’t read John Carver’s flagship book Boards That Make a Difference: A New Design for Leadership in Nonprofit and Public Organizations, please put it on your list. Carver says this about the illusion that pouring over endless streams of  detailed information means the board has done its job:

A common board member folly is to want to “know everything that is going on”. . . Ironically, spending so much time in this impossible attempt to learn all that is going on interferes with really knowing how their organizations are doing. First, boards that are awash in staff material have little time to create the policies at the outset that will serve as criteria. Second, even if boards had such policies, the endless stream of data is largely immaterial to focused, rigorous comparison of performance against criteria. . . But all of this is not to say there is something wrong with incidental information. In itself, it is harmless and can even help board members get a personal feel for the organization. The grave trap in incidental information is that the board may delude itself that the need to do rigorous monitoring has thus been satisfied.

10-Minute Board Discussion:

How could our board agenda help us govern better?


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