The 5 Ws and an H of the Written Board Report
Board meetings are relational and transactional affairs. The optimal results are achieved through processes guided by Consensus, Roberta or Robert’s rules that result in fully informed decisions that in turn further an organization’s mission while providing guidance to the executive director/CEO.
But it really isn’t that simple, is it? Board decisions benefit best from comprehensive, accurate, timely and meaningful reports — be it from key staff or board standing committees or task forces (see my NonProfit PRO March/April 2021 column). My column this period: the who, why, what, when, where and how of written reports to the board of directors.
Who Has Anything to Report?
The executive and senior managers as directed by the executive director have a duty to keep the board informed and ahead of the curve. So do the board committees and task forces in accordance with their mandates (e.g., bylaws or board). I understand that an organization may have non-board committees, and these do not report to the board unless asked by the executive. Non-board committees do not, by-and-large, work on matters pertinent to the board’s work but may, if asked, compile a report the executive can pass on.
What Does the Board Need or Want to Know
I recognize that executive directors and committees most often want to share about the events that surround their and the organization’s day-to-day lives. And yes, some of these events may be worth learning for some board members, particularly if their board membership affords vicarious satisfaction.
I, however, pose that given board member’s fiduciary or strategic duties and the nature of generative discussions, a dashboard that presents program and financial metrics numerically and/or pictorially is what is most needed. If a dashboard has been agreed-upon by the exec and board, this is the fodder that best presents the status of outcomes compared to goals and answers the question, “Are consumers better off?" This question is generally consistent with what was intended in the strategic plan or goals committed to at the beginning of the fiscal year and most importantly, the mission.
Financials have the same level of import to fulfilment of the board’s fiduciary duty. Accuracy and timelines matter, but so, too, does the committee’s recommendations that arise because of detailed study, likely only developed as a committee.
In its report, the board must understand what was assigned and what the expectations were. They should also understand the committee or taskforce tasks and what the results were. Additionally, recommendations that offer options can be especially helpful. Using the “5 Ws” as a framework can prove helpful for a committee in developing its report.
When and Where Should Reports be Given?
It is a service to the board if the executive director, staff, committee, and task force written reports are distributed in advance of board meetings. Reports might be distributed either directly by postal or email or through a secure e-portal like Boardable or BoardEffect.
I propose that reports be submitted three days before the meeting at minimum, but no more than seven days prior, otherwise these reports will not be reviewed.
And Not a W: How to Report?
Here are three rules of thumb for efficient and effective reporting to the board:
- Be sparse with words. The fewer the words and narrative content, the better the comprehension.
- Use numbers, charts, infographics and tables to increase understanding in an efficient, effective and expeditious manner.
- Tell them what you want to tell them. Then tell them what you told them.
Begin with a reminder as to what is that group’s assignment or task that was the basis for the report. For example, an audit committee’s assignment is simple: to oversee the annual audit process and report both on findings and results (e.g., we have found to be in great financial condition, and there is no management letter).
Even a finance and sustainability committee report can be helpful by beginning with a description that says something like: the Committee, in supporting board member’s fiduciary duty, compared the previous period’s finances with the budget and current finances. Here is what we learned: “We are in a positive financial position,” or “We are not in a positive financial position.”
The profit and loss statement, cash flow statement or balance sheet should follow, adding a line with each that cites what it means. And finally, “here’s what we believe the board should consider about this situation.”
Board committees and staff might benefit from considering the “5 Ws and an H” as a framework for ensuring that boards have the smorgasbord of information needed to inform decision making. Through this framework, information will be digestible, appropriate, complete, accurate, and timely. Staff and committees will feel and know they have done their job so that the board will have the capacity to fulfill its fiduciary duty and achieve strategic and generative discussions.
Editor's Note: This “Leading the Board” column was originally published in the May/June 2021 print edition of NonProfit PRO. Click here to subscribe.