Wednesday, April 20, 2016

One board thing: Clear space in meetings by adopting, using a consent agenda



If I could change just one thing to increase the effectiveness of my nonprofit board, I'd

Adopt a consent agenda

"But we don't have time for all of this strategic work you're suggesting. We don't have time to sit around and discuss big questions about our mission. We have real work to do."

I've said it here before and it remains equally true today.  If I had a nickel for every time I got that response to a recommendation to restructure meeting agendas to make space for leadership-driven inquiry, I'd be writing this from a sunny beach somewhere.  Here's the rest of the story: almost without exception, the "real work" that protesters think they can't give up seldom is substantial governance work. It's the stuff of mundane tradition.

I knew this needed to be the next in the "one board thing" series, because it's one thing that can clear a path - and meeting agenda - for the strategic focus and generative discussions that transform nonprofit governance. It's one small thing. But it's a powerful one.

A consent agenda is a meeting tool that gathers routine board actions that require no discussion and are not controversial into a single item. They are approved and voted on as a package.

Among the routine items that are placed on the typical consent agenda:

  • Meeting minutes
  • Treasurer's report
  • CEO report
  • Committee reports
  • Appointments to committees and task forces
  • Correspondence that requires no action

Think of all the time represented in the items on that list. Think of duplicating that block of time, meeting after meeting. Think about all the other, governance-focused work you could be doing with that time. 

Now, let me predict which items will concern some readers.

The treasurer's report -  Tending to the financials, ensuring that resources are used wisely and that no questionable activities are taking place under our noses, is one part of our most fundamental fiduciary responsibilities as a board. But ask yourself, how often does the treasurer's report vary widely from one meeting to another? In most cases, line items fluctuate in a somewhat predictable, orderly fashion. Departures from that routine can be explained in a note attached to the report.

The CEO's report - Clearly, we need ongoing updates about organizational operations from our chief staff leader. We need to know that that person is focusing his or her time and energy on the priorities we set for the year. We need her/his ideas, concerns, etc., on the issues and opportunities we are considering. But do we really need to hear about the routine events that have already occurred in oral form? 

Committee reports -  This was a hot button topic in a recent discussion with my new governance explorer friends. Among the potential reasons offered for why some of their boards insist on giving committees regular, equal agenda time was one that was expected and one I hadn't considered before. The expected: these work groups had information that they needed to share with their peers and oral reports were the vehicle they were used to using to do that. The unexpected: being able to share that information verbally recognized the value of that work. They received affirmation in the act of having the time to share and to be heard. 

The value of committee work should never be underestimated or undervalued. Used properly, they are our board peer researchers and idea generators. They do the legwork and develop the deeper specific knowledge in their assigned areas. They feed our governance work. But as with the CEO reports, sitting around listening to descriptions of activities that took place in the past is not a good use of anyone's time. Instead, committees serve us better by providing written reports about those past events and taking an active role in informing or even facilitating real, fruitful board discussions about issues and opportunities in their expertise areas. They should be sharing their knowledge and helping to frame governance-focused questions informed by that knowledge.

Valuing the work of our committees, and individual members, is essential to building and sustaining motivation. But I would maintain that giving them space to contribute to - even lead - substantive discussions grounded in the results of their hard work will be far more satisfying than simply giving them time to talk about the past while their peers' eyes glaze over. 

Those bigger inquiry opportunities that enhance the board's capacity to make the best decisions possible are what the time freed up by the consent agenda makes possible. They are the "real work" of a board tending to its leadership responsibilities.

Boards have the option to ask to have something removed from the consent agenda if questions arise or clarification of a point is needed. But that clarification often can take place in advance of the meeting. Providing the reports and other consent agenda items in advance of the meeting allow members to review, pose questions, and receive timely responses ahead of time. In most cases, those questions can be resolved without taking up meeting time. In cases where consensus does not exist or an item really needs discussion, the item in question can be removed from the consent agenda and addressed elsewhere in the meeting.

Preparing the written reports for a consent agenda also ensures that information board members may need at a later date, and the institutional history/context that future boards need, are created and can be stored for later reference. A consent agenda helps to naturally populate part of the performance support resources that members need to succeed.

Does your board use a consent agenda? Has your board ever considered  using a consent agenda? What kind of increased governing capacity might you see if you adopted this "one board thing?"

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