Board Reporting: Action, Approval, Information – Which is it?

“Bill, I’m not sure what you’re asking the committee to do with the material you sent out for the meeting.” The man on the phone was the committee Chair and he wanted to be sure he understood what was being asked of him before going into the meeting.

That was my mistake. As the resource person supporting the work of the committee, my job is to organize the material so that its purpose is crystal clear. For example, there are only three things you can ask of a Board or Committee:

  • Action – You’re asking them to do something
  • Approval – You need their approval in order to move something forward
  • Information – You are reporting back to them

If the Chair is clear on what is being asked of the Committee, (s)he can set the right tone for the discussion. If the supporting written material is already organized so that it flows towards a clear objective, less time will be wasted. With clarity of purpose and well organized supporting material, the work of the Committee can be done quickly and effectively.

It’s when there is no clear purpose that Committees often flounder and meetings become protracted. Members end up trying to second guess the intent of the material before them or worse, re-write it completely. When that happens, when you look around the room and see a lot of tired faces, the best thing is to refer the work back to where it came from with instructions to re-draft it.

By this I do not mean to imply that Committees should be manipulated into one specific direction. If the intent of the work before them is clear, it is also easier to reject it or send it back for more work. My personal experience with Committees is that they respect a well reasoned argument and will put a lot of energy into reviewing it if the information is brief and well presented. They will usually come up with comments that I had not considered, so that the end result is better than it would have been had I been working alone.

Which brings me to the topic of brevity. Churchill famously insisted that all briefs be reduced to a single page, but your Board / Committee probably wants a little more background than that. Readable writing is more important than just the length, although if a brief is perceived as being too long you run the risk of your Committee not reading it at all. If writing is not one of your strengths, by all means delegate! There are lots of freelance editors who will help you structure your thoughts. Here are some tips:

  • Use bullet points – they break up the monotony of the text and make it easy to find the important parts of your argument,
  • Use sub-headings – they organize your work — try reading just the sub-headings, they should give you a feel for the whole document
  • Keep your sentences short – avoid compound, complex sentences
  • Avoid the passive voice – keep your prose active

What has your Board experience been like, whether from the staff viewpoint or the Board member’s? Please join the discussion and leave a comment.

3 Comments on “Board Reporting: Action, Approval, Information – Which is it?

  1. So technically there’s only two things you can ask of them… “inform” isn’t really asking, unless you stretch it to be “ask them to listen”… inform is a good prelude to “action” or “approval” though.

    Perhaps that should be ranked higher in the list! 😉

    I’ve had a surprisingly broad range of board experience given my relative newness to the field. But I’ve experienced “aimless hell”, followed by the extreme response, “rush through everything as fast as possible to avoid aimless hell”, followed by “starting to understand what I’m doing and running accordingly intelligent meetings.” Oh I could expound at length on this process.

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