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How To Write A Good Board Report

Joan Garry, Joan Garry Consulting

Washington, D.C. - November 23, 2015

“Lunch at Disney Studios with Mickey Mouse re: Ear Size.” The Daily Grill. $73.57.”

You know what nobody actually reads? Expense reports. Or so I thought when I worked at Showtime.

So I expensed the line above. And got reimbursed. No problem. Hypothesis proven. (Note: the lunch was legitimate. Only the description wasn’t. Nothing fraudulent going on here.)

You know what else nobody reads? Board reports.

I recently got an email from a reader, asking how to write a board report that her board would actually want to read. She needed a board report template. She wrote:

“I was wondering if you might have an example of a format for a CEO report to the board and recommendations for major topics to report on. Our board wants a streamlined, informative snapshot report. The previous report for 2014 was built on what each board member wanted to hear about and it ended up 6 pages and too lengthy for anyone to want to read.”

Talk about a self-fulfilling prophecy. Of course nobody wanted to read it. And I bet this CEO didn’t want to write it either. After all, if you don’t think someone will read ‘em, you won’t invest much in writing ‘em.

What we have ourselves here is a good ol’ fashioned Catch-22. Here’s the right way to write a board report that will actually get read. And remembered!

WHAT IS A BOARD REPORT REALLY FOR?

There’s quite a bit of confusion out there about why you even need to do this. It almost seems like busy work. But done right, it’s actually very important.

The point of a good board report is…

• To communicate, in advance, information that brings board members up to speed on what’s gone on since the last board meeting, leading to much more engagement and interaction at the next board meeting.

• To give board members a sense of pride and enthusiasm about the work.

• To offer one last reminder about what board members committed to do at the last meeting (in case they have forgotten, procrastinated. or both.)

• To spark questions / raise issues that the board member can then ask or address in the board meeting.

• To ignite enthusiasm in your most important ambassadors; to give a board member key stories and “material” for marketing the organization to friends and prospects.

THE ONE AND ONLY THING THAT GETS READ

I was a nonprofit board member and our board book went on for days. The reports were so long that I couldn’t decipher what was most important. The lede was often buried.

So I always went straight for the E.D. report. Done well, it’s like a first rate executive summary – and should in fact tee up the most important parts of the board book.

Write your E.D. report like it’s the only thing anybody will actually read.

A FIRST RATE EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR BOARD REPORT TEMPLATE

You’re the CEO or Executive Director. I’m the board member. Here’s a board report template for what I want (and need) to see.

The Opening

Bring the work to life for me as a board member. Let me walk in your shoes.

“I knew it had been a good quarter when I sat in this meeting with X, Y and Z. And after we made our case, Z turned to X and had a) a change of heart b) a new decision in your favor c) a “yes” to a big ask or d) some kind of evidence that the tide of your work is turning.”

The Most Important Items to Review

Like any good executive summary, tell me what I should look out for in the other reports.

“As you read Emily’s report, take note of page 3 where she talks about her department retreat and the core strategic takeaways from that.”

The Context

Give me some context for our organization’s work. I joined the board because I care about the sector.

If you attended a conference, don’t just tell me you did. Tell me something you learned about the sector. I want to be wiser and smarter about what we’re doing. As a board member, I should be.

The Question

Remember: I am not just the person who should be raising money and isn’t.

I have a brain, I have skills and expertise and opinions. Put me to work. Get me thinking about that question in advance of the meeting.

Then be sure there is space on the agenda for a discussion of that issue. Don’t ask me to consider a question or an issue and then forget to discuss it at the meeting. That’s rather counterproductive.

The Appreciation

Appreciate our efforts. Thank us in advance for donating the evening or the weekend. It’s not just your staff that’s been so busy. Highlight the work of some of us who have also “been busy” on behalf of the organization since the last meeting.

You want to create a sense of teamwork between the board and the staff.

HOW TO DESTROY YOUR BOARD REPORT

Even if you follow the template, you can still blow it. Here are two things you must promise me you will NOT do!

Don’t give the board members enough time to read the board book. It’s not rude at all to send it to me with a few days left on the clock. Frankly, when you sent it at the last minute, you’re sending the message that it’s not very important. So don’t expect I’ll actually read it.

Use the word “busy!” Look, we get it. But I sure hope you were busy. You don’t have to justify that you have a lot to do. Certainly not to me. Don’t TELL me you’re busy. Tell me what you are doing and why it matters. One time I went though my own staff’s board reports. Guess what? Nearly everyone led with something like, “My staff has been very busy since our last board meeting.” So, before you send out the board book, have somebody go through and remove any sentence that has the word “busy” in it.

A BOARD REPORT IS NOT AN ACTIVITY REPORT

The reader who requested this template sent me a copy of her board report. Here are a few things that stood out to me relative to my guidelines above.

• “Fire panel placement completed” — I am deeply asleep

• “There was no turnover in full time staff in 2014” — I am wildly impressed but want to know more. Why? How does that compare with nonprofit averages?

• “Strategic Plan – in process” — NO! Don’t leave me hanging like that. Tell me more. Can I please hear about the issues are that you are grappling with? Just one maybe?

To my reader: you are clearly doing very important work and have made real strides. Next time you write a report, remember this one sentence:

A board report is not an activity report.

It has to be more.

I would love to hear from board member readers (there are so many of you!) Share your thoughts. What makes a great board report? What would incent you to read the entire board book? What have I missed in my guidelines above?

I am learning that my tribe members have so much to teach each other. And me!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Widely known as the "Dear Abby" of nonprofit leadership, Joan Garry works with board and staff as a strategic advisor, crisis manager, change agent and strategic planner. Joan also teaches at the University of Pennsylvania with a focus on nonprofit communications and leadership.

SOURCE:

www.joangarry.com/board-report-template/