The Strategic Board Agenda

Board Café

The Strategic Board Agenda

This winter holiday season, let's remember that all over the world, nonprofit organizations are the engines of democracy and social change. As board members, we typically think about how we are helping the causes and services of our organizations. But think about it: a nonprofit can start with just an idea and the commitment of just a few people. The inherently democratic nature of nonprofit origins means that nonprofits help keep new ideas arising: an intrinsic counter-action to tyranny. For this reason, citizens in emerging democracies in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Asia and elsewhere, make developing nonprofits a cornerstone strategy for democracy. As we pray this season for social justice and peace, let's not forget that our own nonprofits are part of a worldwide movement for democracy. -Jan Masaoka

In last month's Board Café, we asked whether board members should have business cards for the organizations on whose boards they participate. Looking through the first three dozen answers that came in, the vote was overwhelmingly YES. (Of course, people IN FAVOR of business cards were more likely to write in.) In most cases, writers said that the cards were mini-brochures to help board members promote the organization, and often include mission statements, summaries of services, etc. Jane Rifesnider, board member of Friends of Indiana Libraries, wrote this scene: "Hey, Joe! What are you up to these days?" Joe takes out his business card and hands it over. "No kidding. I didn't know you were on that board. What do they do?" If Joe doesn't know, he can use the mission statement printed on the back of the card to help him out. Joe can then go on to explain why he invests his time with this organization and why he thinks others should too."

Jean Barish, Board President of the International Pemphigus Foundation, described what many other readers proposed: "Our organization has a 'generic' card. The space where the name is usually printed is left blank, and can be filled in by hand by each board member. The contact information is the office information. The personal contact information of the board member can be hand written on the back of the card." On the other hand, Judy Murphy of Winnipeg makes a good point, too: "Business cards imply that a board member has the individual authority to enter into business contracts on behalf of the organization and since board members do not have individual authority, they should not have cards."

Variations included: having two-fold cards to carry more information, printing the organization's contact information on the back of the board members' work business cards, making them available only on request. Thanks to all of you for your comments!

This handbook by Don Watson, clearly an experienced and thoughtful board member, is a solid A-Z for members of nonprofit boards. I don't agree with all of his approaches, but he has many great examples as well as a tone that is both supportive and challenging. $20/copy or $100 for 6 copies for the United States edition of this book, please send money order to The Board Member's Companion, Thunder Bay Symphony Orchestra, PO BOX 24036, Ontario, Canada, P7A 7A9 or call 807.345.4331. Proceeds go to Thunder Bay Symphony Orchestra. For Canadian edition contact Volunteer Thunder Bay: Phone: 807.623.8272; Email: Proceeds for Canadian edition go to Volunteer Thunder Bay. Please include name and address with all orders.

And thank you to the Board Café's Editorial Committee: Mike Allison, Pardis Parsa and Tim Wolfred of CompassPoint; Brooke Mahoney of the Volunteer Consulting Group, and Nora Silver of the Volunteerism Project. Now for this month's "Main Course" at the Board Café: Thinking about how to make board discussions more engaging, more strategic? Tom McLaughlin, one of the nonprofit sector's brightest lights, shares a great idea with us.

Board meetings can be mind-numbingly boring. Worse, they can be frustrating. Not frustrating in a table-thumping, vein-popping fashion, but frustrating in that participants often feel a muted sense of wasted opportunity without being able to identify the cause. The root of the problem can be found in the excerpt below from a hypothetical nonprofit board meeting agenda:

Executive Director's Report: Technology plan update
Finance Committee Report: Analysis of overall agency profitability; Analysis of new program profitability; Cash flow report; Proposed change in insurance agency
Nominating Committee Update: Report on new candidates
Program Committee Report: Documentation of need for new program.

The repetitive nature of this agenda, consisting entirely of reports and updates, is obvious. For a board member seeking to use skills and knowledge to advance the cause, it is depressingly flat. The homogeneity of the agenda obscures any signals about what is important and what is not. There is no indication how this meeting relates to any other meeting or to the overall mission of the organization. No one has much fun with this type of agenda, and very little is likely to get accomplished. Now look at the revised agenda below:

Expand Educational Program into East Side: Documentation of need (Program Committee), Analysis of program profitability (Finance), Potential board member from East Side (Nominating)
Increase Profitability: Analysis of overall agency profitability (Finance); Proposed change in insurance agency (Finance)
Development of Information Systems: Discussion of new technology plan (Executive Director); Consideration of capital investment needs (Finance)

This kind of strategic agenda planning has two advantages. First, it draws board members away from the inherently backward-looking nature of reports and updates and involves them in future-oriented discussions and debate. The first agenda compartmentalizes material, while the second makes it easier to see the linkage between the items and the overall purpose.

A second advantage is that it creates a sense of momentum and teamwork toward a common goal. The goals board members worked so hard to identify during their strategic planning retreat show up exactly as crafted on every board meeting agenda. Members know that they will be able to engage in the dialog, and the back-and-forth nature of committee material makes it easier for them to engage in the discussion because there won't be long stretches of time when they are expected to be passive listeners.

This has been adapted and reprinted with permission from Thomas A. McLaughlin, author of Nonprofit Mergers and Alliances: A Strategic Planning Guide. His email address is

Next month in the Board Café: Loans From Board Members

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