Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Flipping the nonprofit board agenda

When people ask me to recommend one step they could take to improve the effectiveness of their board meetings, my instant response is "flip the agenda."

The usual complaints about board meetings cluster around two common themes: no time for the "fluffy" stuff and fatigued members by the time they get to the places where that fluff might actually arise (old and new business, generally found at the end of the agenda). Regular readers know that I've often advocated for a different frame of mind about that fluff. What's often treated as "nice IF we ever find the time" is governance. I try my persuasive best, but I'm finding that that shift of thinking is much harder for boards than it should be.

But the second complaint, board members too exhausted to speak, let alone think, when the substantive questions arise, requires only one simple action: flipping the agenda.

If your agenda is like most, it's front-loaded with reports, something along the lines of this:
  • Minutes to be approved
  • Treasurer's report
  • Executive director's report
  • Committee reports
Your individual board may handle these tasks in different ways. You may have other, similar meeting elements that fit the general theme. But the overall effect on the board is fairly universal: members are checked out and exhausted by passively sitting around listening to others ramble on about things that happened in the past (because that's the focus of most reports: events that took place between meetings).  If your board has two to four committees, and they all have something to report, that little checklist could take at least an hour of your members' precious time and energy.

Now, I have another recommendation for dealing with all those reports: adopt a consent agenda. Boards should be focused on the future, not endlessly reviewing events from the past. But if that step is too rich for your members' collective blood, you can position these items in a different place on the agenda: at the end, where passive attention is less damaging.

Flipping the agenda - placing the reports and other passive tasks at the end and opening meetings with the larger issues that require fresh thinking and full attention - involves board members in the substantive work up front. Two things are likely to occur. First, they have the energy needed to discuss these agenda items freely and creatively. Second, they also have the potential to generate energy, as they are engaged in work that challenges them and connects them to aspects of the meaningful work that drew them to serve in the first place.

So what might a "flipped agenda" look like? Here's an example of how I envision a revamp:

XYZ Nonprofit Board Meeting
Call to order

Burning board question (10 minutes): How are we, as a board, "feeling" our mission? (Discussion based on Carlo Cuesta's post, "Overcoming a Disconnect with the Mission")

Old business (in the spirit of simply flipping things around)

  • Update, discussion on agency's efforts to diversify funding base (facilitated by Resource Development Committee)

New business

  • Discuss proposed collaboration with ABC Nonprofit to create a community resource clearinghouse (facilitated by Community Engagement Committee)

Reports (only if you really, really cannot adopt a consent agenda)
  • Approval of previous meeting minutes
  • Treasurer's report
  • Executive director's report

I toyed with adding other agenda items to this example, in the spirit of a more detailed illustration of what I am advocating. Ultimately, I deleted them in recognition of another agenda pitfall: cramming too much activity into a finite time frame. Even the two old and new business examples offered have the potential for overload when presented in one meeting. You could easily select only one for focus this time around and end up with a stimulating, engaging, and potentially overwhelming (in a good way) meeting.

One thing in my sample meeting that I refused to remove from the table was the "burning board question," a brief opportunity to engage members in governance related learning that connects them to the meaning of their work. That small investment of time sets the stage and puts them into the right frame of mind for the work that lies ahead.

Another minor shift that I want to be sure to point out in this example: the role of committees in leading the "old" and "new" business items. Rather than itemizing tasks already behind them, they are engaged in leading their peers in substantive, future-oriented discussions clearly tied to governance responsibilities. Don't underestimate the transformative potential of changing the way you involve your committees while you're flipping the agenda.

A given for the success of this agenda adjustment - or any board agenda - is that members receive it in a timely manner. The greatest agenda in the world, filled with the most profound questions of the day, is of no value if members see it only a day or two before the meeting (or worse, at the meeting). Substantive discussions require time to think, gather feedback, and read supportive materials. They require time.

Have you experienced a similar kind of approach to board meetings? Would your board be open to flipping things around? What other changes to meeting structure might a board consider to transform the way it works?


Nancy Iannone said...

I have been thinking about flipping the agenda for a board I start chairing in February. I've used the "burning question" combined with a consent agenda for another board recently and found a huge difference in board engagement.

I particularly liked the idea in this post of having committees lead the discussion under old and new business.

Great food for thought!

Debra Beck, EdD said...

I love how our minds were operating in parallel modes on this, Nancy!

I'd love to hear more about how the board has responded to the "burning question," when/how you introduce, etc. It would be fascinating to have more detail on how that has impacted engagement.

Alexandra Peters said...

I SO agree with this. But my own experience is that it's hard. Not only are we all entrenched in this way of doing things, but committee chairs and the ED are waiting for their moment in the sun, board members are convinced that they ought to be doing things in the old way, and because it's so fundamentally unclear to boards what they should be doing, the old way is reassuring: this is how it is supposed to be done.

My own experience is that flipping the agenda works best after a board has done a fair amount of work - and it's fun and exciting work - on vision, values and mission. Then everyone is talking in a different way, and the big issues, rather than a review of yesterdays issues, seem more important.

But it takes work. As much as I believe in flipping the agenda, I have noted my own propensity to slide into the classic mode. It requires focus and energy to adapt to this way of questioning and deep discussion - it's so easy to just let it be the old way. And It's so worth doing. Once you get used to it, the old way seems preposterous.

Debra Beck, EdD said...

In my ideal world,the board meeting agenda would have an entirely different look. You're right, Alexandra. Change is hard, exactly because of what you describe: we may cling to the reassuring, even if it's not accomplishing what we need or want to accomplish, simply because it is known.

That said, for those boards that want to step outside of that comfort zone, change is possible - and it need not require a complete overturning of the familiar.

Turning the agenda upside down isn't a radical change. A friend on Twitter asked about the need for "old" and "new" business in the example. If I really were revamping the agenda, those terms would disappear. I left them in they example because they are familiar. What we call the work isn't important. Doing the work is.

Frankly, the only thing that *really* needs to happen to change the energy of board meetings is doing away with all of those oral reports.

There are other, less time consuming (and mind-numbing) ways to handle that information sharing. If we freed up that precious board time for real discussion, and focus on the responsibilities of governance, board effectiveness would rise with very little actual change. That's the reward of taking even small steps toward changing the way we work. Board members are community leaders; they can handle it. And, I predict, they will like it.