Five Tips for Better Board Packets

Having been both an executive director and a board president, 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 Blue Avocado readers sent in their comments about what they like -- and can't stand! -- in board meeting packets. Two striking takeaways: 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 reflect anger over the message they are getting from staff about how the 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. Why is this in the packet?

Board members want the packet to give what 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.

Oh, and unless it's a very, very thick packet, don't put it in a binder.

2. Enough time to read it but don't FedEx it

Board members want enough time to read the packet, and some organizations send the packet by email as well as by regular mail, or post the material on a password-protected website, so that board members can access the packet from wherever they might be. Getting complex financial information the day before a meeting is a surefire way to make sure board members come to the meeting already irritated.

If the packets are mailed, get them out without having to use an overnight mail service, except perhaps for board members who live relatively far away. Many board members were annoyed at the extra expense that represented procrastination on the part of staff.

3. Basic logistics

Critical, but often overlooked: meeting location, directions to the meeting, hotel phone (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 reader's organization that serves blind people 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. Anticipate key questions about finance and other matters

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, the answer to "should we be worried?"

Use an executive director's report to report briefly on other matters, such as funding updates, program updates, special news about staff or the board, rather than in a series of separate reports. At the meeting a brief update is all that's needed, not a long executive report.

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. Committee reports in writing rather than at meeting

Board members don't want to read things that will be repeated at the board meeting, and neither do they 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.

And a cool tip

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!

This article is adapted from a section in Best of the Board Cafe, Second Edition, by Jan Masaoka, available from Fieldstone Press here.

See also in Blue Avocado:

Comments (5)

  • Anonymous

    Like the author, I have been both CEO and a board member. This is an excellent primer and I thank you for putting it out for us to read. Right on Sister Jan!!!

    Oct 06, 2010
  • I too have been on both sides of the photocopier. It is important to keep in close contact with your Board Chair. Let him / her preview the packet, make suggestions and weigh in on irritants. S/he will hear the complaints before you do. NEVER, NEVER make handwritten notes in the packet!!!!!!!! Thank you for a succinct, articulate article. Lynn

    Oct 18, 2010
  • Anonymous

    This is a great article, Thanks! One question - if not in a binder - what form should it take? What's your favorite "form" of board packet?

    Oct 26, 2010
  • I like color-coded hard-copy packets, for instance, with the financial statements always in green, the executive director's report always in lavender, or whatever. With a binder clip in the upper left hand corner. Reference documents like the bylaws should be given to people in hardcopy, but more importantly they should be posted online. I've never been able to remember where my board binder is when I need it. My $0.02.  Thanks for asking! Jan

    Oct 26, 2010
  • The future of communicating with the board of directors is to do it digitally - a board portal. You can schedule board or committee meetings, upload and deliver the board packet (along with other documents) to members, and archive it for a good system of record. Board Director (boarddirector.co) is a board portal with excellent pricing for nonprofits. Larger Board portals like BoardVantage, or Diligent cost $10,000 or more.

    Jul 18, 2017

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