Decision-makers need information to choose wisely. A culture of constructive debate is more likely to translate into better decision-making when boards use high-quality decision-relevant information as the basis of their discussions.
Accessing and processing the right information is a challenge for many charities and charity boards, especially during a crisis. Boards are becoming hungrier for data because they need to make difficult decisions quickly. Amidst uncertainty, having good data is seen as crucial by many.
In general, the trustees we surveyed were satisfied with current information. Over a third described board papers as ‘very good’. But our survey showed that a quarter of trustees still rate the quality of input into board meetings (pre Covid-19) as moderate or poor. If given the opportunity to change just one aspect of board meetings, one in four trustees (26%) said that improving the quality of input into board meetings would be their top priority.
Board papers have become the preferred way in which the executive shares information with the board. But there are many bad habits impeding information-based decision-making.
1. What: Papers are too long
Many trustees interviewed for this research said board papers get out of hand. At one charity included in this research, the chair told us that their board papers used to be 300-400 pages long. It comes as no surprise then that trustees commonly mention “reading board papers” as their least favourite aspects of trusteeship.
Importantly, lengthy board papers perpetuate another communication challenge; trustees do not read board papers ahead of meetings! And where detailed papers are read, the ensuing conversation often tends to home in on operational detail rather than matters of broader strategic relevance.
Be clear to the Executive about the level of information you need to make a decision.
2. When: Papers come too often
Charity Boards risks falling under the illusion that they are attending to an issue only when it becomes a “standing item” on the agenda or the subject of too many regular reports. One chair we interviewed told us that trustees risk “missing the bigger themes” when over-reporting lures them into a false sense of familiarity with an issue. When asked what they would change about board meetings, some trustees suggested reducing unnecessary repetition.
3. How: Presentations are disempowering
Executive teams need to consider how they present information, not just what and when. One chief executive told us that, at her charity, finances used to be presented in a way that deliberately created ambiguity and confusion by being so complex that oversight became a matter for a select few when it should be considered every trustee’s responsibility.
Clarity – not simplicity – is key. Executive teams need to be able to communicate in a way that everyone on the board will understand, regardless of skill base.
4. Why: Information for information’s sake
Some trustees request information for information’s sake, according to board development experts we interviewed. More than on many other kinds of board, it seems, charity trustees often enjoy getting informed on matters and to “get chatting on the theme”. While it is important that trustees understand the working of their charity, this can detract time and energy from decision-critical information.
There is a real need to be clear about the questions that need answering and the discussions that need to be had. Focus on the things that will make the biggest difference.
Requesting more information can sometimes reflect a desire to delay a decision. Boards must be clear on why they require information from the executive and how they intend to use it.
Relatedly, some chairs told us that executives can spend a lot of time presenting board papers that should have been read ahead of the meeting. This too detracts time from leveraging information for effective decision-making.
Don’t ask for a paper if you don’t really, really need it.
Make sure trustees are properly informed so they can execute their responsibilities in a considered and fair way. Transparency can be uncomfortable, but you have to be open.
1. Measure what you treasure
What’s in the board paper shapes what’s discussed. Focus papers on impact and outcomes where possible to ensure discussions and decisions centre on the core mission of the charity.
Board decisions should be made on the basis of impact. Board papers should speak to that.
Several board development experts we interviewed said that many charities do not measure the impact of their work and therefore lack the data to guide decision-making.
If charities don’t understand what “realising their mission” looks like for them, boards cannot request the right information to inform decision-making in the interest of the charity’s purpose, nor would the executive be able to collect it. As NPC suggests in its publication Above and beyond trusteeship, ‘achieving the charity’s mission should be the board’s primary consideration and should trump all other concerns’.
For charities to stay effective and relevant, it is essential to track impact measures over time. Especially when resources are scarce and the format of programme delivery is changing. Boards need to make data-driven choices on where to invest more, where to pivot, and where to join forces with similar charities.
NPC is a strong advocate for impact-focused boards and has published widely on impact measurement. NPC’s latest thinking can be found in the publication, Understanding impact, which follows on from the guide, Theory of change in ten steps.
Sometimes it feels like we forget what we are here for – for impact.
2. Establish clear guidelines
To build a culture of open and transparent information sharing between the executive and the board, establish clear guidelines on the scope, length and format of board papers.
One chief executive we spoke to had recently joined a charity in considerable financial difficulty. She was working hard to improve relations between the executive and the board. This meant fostering an awareness of the importance of transparency, accountability and clarity towards the board, and coaching her executive team to build good communication habits with the board. In her experience, ensuring that her team followed a clear template for board papers made changing the culture of information sharing easier – especially during a period when the relationship between the executive the board was changing exponentially.
Clear guidelines on how we present information to the Board helps me stand fully behind my team.
- Layout: Several chief executives we interviewed found that working with both a summary cover sheet and an appendix helps focus the board’s attention on the most relevant details. Where we spoke to the chair and the chief executive of the same charity, we sometimes found that they mis-understood each other’s expectations. While one chief executive felt pressured to present clear recommendations, the chair told us he would appreciate information on more options to deepen the board’s engagement with decisions.
- Options: Include agreement on whether board papers should include a take-it-or-leave-it recommended decision or multiple options in your guidelines.
Transparent and concise information leads to balanced decisions from a Board where an individual may otherwise be inclined to make a decision even before it has been discussed at the Board.
3. Create decision-first papers
Rather than organising papers by theme, decision-focussed papers put the decision to be made in the headings. Several board development expert and chairs we interviewed recommended that executive teams create decision-focussed papers. This, they argued, makes processing information a more focussed exercise. It also challenges executive teams to collect and communicate the information that is directly relevant to a decision facing the board.
You can only make good decisions if you are well informed. So read the papers, take time to understand the background, and ask questions before and during meetings. That way, the decisions come more easily.
4. Consider alternative formats
Sometimes, board papers are not the most effective format for information sharing. Where the primary aim is to keep trustees informed, executive teams might want to consider alternatives, for example webinars, expert talks, or other forms of interactive learning.
Many charities that deliver frontline services now require trustees to participate in their programmes and interact with service users once a year. Such experiential learning is also an effective part of every trustee’s onboarding process.
Extra tip: Try new formats and tools
Many companies with strong corporate cultures have formulated clear guidelines on meeting papers for executives and deliberately built a culture that facilitates productive engagement with decision-relevant information. For example, Amazon meetings start with participants reading a 1, 2 or 6 page memo in silence before discussing it. Amazon also enforces strict limits on the number of meeting participants.
Leapwise has built a method, supported by software, that allows any organisation to decide on its own meeting disciplines based on evidence from decision-science. Organisations tailor their approach to their sector and context, the software measures meeting effectiveness across the organisation, and staff can then access e-learning, nudges and other supports, tracking which changes boost satisfaction and decision-making pace and quality.
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