Information Digestion – How to Prepare the Board without Overloading

“Help! My board wants a big packet of information prior to a Board meeting. But, they don’t read it and the next generation board members hate it!”, said one Executive Director who puts together a 300-page packet for each board meeting. I pushed back and asked, how do you know? She answered, “We measure the click-through rate on the board packet and it is very low. Mostly no one opens it.” She then said, “It seems impossible to satisfy both the audience that wants the big packet versus those that want brevity.” But, it is possible to satisfy both while transitioning to a more condensed tool.

The key to making this transition to a more condensed packet is not to make it all at once. You can still satisfy the board member wanting the additional pages while satisfying the board member that wants the information in digestible bites. Split the board packet into fourparts:

  1. The Agenda – Before you even think about your board book, the agenda is the key to a successful meeting. Not only does the agenda capture key topics and timing, it also identifies meaningful points in the meeting where critical actions will occur. The first step to shrinking the board packet, is to structure your agenda so that each item discussed directly corresponds to your organization’s strategic plan. This will not only allow for a greater focus on achieving the mission but more importantly, the agenda is not loaded up with items that are not relevant for discussion
  • The Executive Summary – Even though this is listed as #2 in terms of the report, first write your management report in the next step. Once you write your management report, you can then summarize it even further in the Executive Summary. Once you have written your management report, write a 3-5-page Executive Summary of all of the relevant information in the board packet that aligns with your strategic agenda and management report so that the reader understands what will occur and what they need to take action on during the meeting. Include comments around where key motions/resolutions will be made or passed as well as any key dashboards (i.e. financial, strategic plan, membership, etc.). Also, hyperlink important documents in the PDF for ease of accessibility. It is a fact that if your board member needs to hunt for an attachment or a document, they will give up. This is extremely important.Adobe Acrobat offers many features to make the document navigable. 
  • The Management Report – Provide a no more than 20-page Management Report that goes into further detail around specifics in the board packet. This may include a financial review, a detailed update around the strategic plan, progress on vendor agreements/contracts, etc. This section allows the reader that wants more information to dig deeper and gain an even better understanding of the focus of the board meeting. 
  • Appendix – This is the section that would include supporting documents such as the full committee reports, the full budget, the strategic plan and its corresponding updates, etc. They would have specific links to them for ease of access. They are there as supplemental information only unless called out in the Executive Summary  or Management Report as an item that needs to be read in its entirety. This section satisfies the data junkie that wants to do a deep dive but also includes the information that the board is used to seeing – for now!

Weaning the board off the 300-page board packet to something more concise and meaningful as a management tool will take 4 – 6 board meetings with the new format. The goal is for the Executive Summary and the Management Report to be fully read so that the board is exercising its fiduciary responsibility. With a 3-page Executive Summary and a 20-page management report, 23 pages is not that difficult to get through.

The Path to Brevity

Once the board has seen the new format over a period of 4-6 meetings and adopted a strategic agenda, you should see at least a 50% reduction in the overall board packet’s size after 2 – 4 meetings. By the 6thmeeting, you should see another 25% reduction. The key is to adhere to the strategic agenda, include only meaningful information and reduce the number of documents in the appendix.

Shrinking your board packet is not the biggest benefit your organization will receive. By moving towards the path of brevity at each meeting, the board will be more focused on the mission of the organization and achieving its strategic goals. Your board will turn into a “lean, mean, strategic machine!”. Take the first step with your agenda and the rest will follow.