3 Suggestions for an Executive Board Report
In my governance practice, I often hear from many board members and have experienced that executive reports often sound like an adapted verse from a Bob Dylan song only without the moonbeams. Few executives believe their board members read what they have mailed or put in the board portal ahead of a board meeting. Reports by executives are most often in a narrative format, as well as repeated orally live in the board meeting. In this article, I will present my suggestions for a “fresh” approach executives might produce to result in a report that is sought after and read as a source of strategic and generative discussion.
First I’ll share three assumptions for offering a “fresh” format for a regular executive report to the board. I assume that:
- Sometime before the end of the fiscal or calendar year, the board has approved an annual program plan or perhaps just goals (effectively implementing the strategic plan) with an accompanying budget.
- A dashboard that reports on the status of the program, fiscal goals and possibly other metrics — and is regularly submitted to the board.
- Ignorance is not bliss. The board, toward fulfilling its fiduciary duty of care, must rely on the information provided by its one employee in measuring progress toward mission, risk management and prevention, and guiding the organization’s future.
Working with these assumptions, I believe there to be at least three buckets of information the executive can submit.
The Buckets That Can Structure an Executive’s Report
Three buckets can be filled accordingly:
- External risks and opportunities.
- Internal challenges.
Bucket one involves the executive informing the board about current and/or previously unresolved external risks and opportunities, and describes the plan that has or will be implemented toward mitigation or pursuit. On the threat side, clearly, the current pandemic looms large for many organizations and the board. And the surrogate “owner” must be kept informed to ensure that efforts have been made to reduce risk of harm and liability for the organization, its employees and its constituents.
In bucket two, the executive can highlight the status of internal, be they human or non-human, challenges that affect the annual plan or budget implementation. The executive should also describe the status of efforts to address these challenges.
Again, referring to the pandemic, with changes in the potential for implementing fundraising events, the executive should advise what is the alternate plan to address the situation. Bottom line: Identifying challenges is not meaningful without a strategy to limit or eliminate short and/or long term impact.
In bucket three, the executive should be sure to identify successes that rise beyond plan implementation. With the pandemic, they could share an example by describing a staffer or volunteer who went above and beyond or activities that have been employed to ensure the internal environment stays true to board values.
I should stress that the three buckets centrally tell the story of how the nonprofit is institutionally thriving given all it faces internally, externally and principally at a macro versus micro level. And while the three buckets may sound like the volume of information needed will result in a lengthy report, boards do not eagerly respond to length. Alternative formats with less narrative will be better received as long as they are not so minimal that substance is lost. But, of course, the board can and should use board meeting time to discuss matters where more is needed.
Overseeing the wellbeing of the nonprofit and ensuring that mission is always in sight is what a board does to fulfill its fiduciary duty. To know what it needs to know, the board must plan. And the board must rely on information. A dashboard numerically reports the status of program and financial results against goals. An executive three-bucket report provides an understanding of the internal and external challenges, risks and opportunities, and strategies to take advantage of or limit impact.
But the most useful and effective reporting tool, in my opinion, is the result of a conversation that is had between the board and the executive. The two should together determine what information is most needed, how frequently and in what format. Ignorance is not bliss.
Editor's Note: This Leading the Board column was originally published in the September/October 2020 print edition of NonProfit PRO. Click here to subscribe.