Board Cafe: Board Meeting Packets

Board Cafe

Board Meeting Packets

by Jan Masaoka

As both an executive director and a board president (of CompassPoint and the San Francisco Foundation Community Initiative Funds respectively), I'm on both sides of the board packet question. I know the staff's temptation to send a ton of stuff, the better to inform and impress the board. I also know the board member's tendency to run out of time to read the material, but still to be annoyed if the materials are either late or questionably useful.

More than 50 Board Cafe readers sent in their comments about what they like - and can't stand! - in board meeting packets. Reading through all the letters, I realized that board members feel disrespected when board packets are late or sloppy, and feel railroaded when background information isn't included for an upcoming decision. The angry comments from board members over irrelevant or unexplained materials express anger over the message they are getting from staff about how the organization's staff values and respects the board's ability, authority, and responsibility to make decisions. A thoughtful packet not only provides the board with the information it needs for the meeting, but increases board confidence in the staff and in the board-staff relationship.

More specifically:

  1. Board members want information that will be needed for the next board meeting. If approval of a new program or a new budget is on the agenda, a clear statement of the proposal must be in the packet, along with identifying who (staff? a board committee?) is bringing the proposal and what their thinking or rationale is for the proposal.
  2. Board members want enough time to read the packet, and some organizations send the packet by email as well as by regular mail, so that board members can access the packet from wherever they might be.
  3. Critical, but often overlooked: meeting location, directions to the meeting, hotel phone and fax (if board members travel to the meeting), and an annotated agenda (explaining, for example, who will be making a report and what action will be called for). Also: text large enough for board members to read easily (one Board Cafe reader's organization that serves the blind prepares its packets in Braille, too), and names and phone numbers of people to call if there's a question about a given item.
  4. Brief and USABLE updates on priority matters, especially financial status. In financial information, board members want to be able to tell - either from the statements or from a cover memo - whether the organization is on budget, is financially sound: in short, "should we be worried?" Other matters - funding updates, program updates, special news about staff or the board - can be covered in an executive director's report or in a series of brief program reports. If other items such as journal articles are included, let board members know what they should be looking for - is this "deep background" or is there an upcoming organizational decision for which this material is relevant?
  5. Board members don't want to read things that will be repeated at the board meeting, and they also don't like routine committee reports at board meetings. In other words, put committee reports in the board packet, and don't include the report on the agenda unless there is action needed on a proposal from the committee. DO allow for questions about written reports, and say a word of thanks to committees who submitted reports but who are not giving verbal reports at the meeting.

**My favorite idea: survey the board members (in writing or at a board meeting discussion) every couple of years and ask THEM which components of the board packet they like best, like least, and what they'd like to see that they don't!

Original publication date:  01/26/2001

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