Trustees must conduct an extensive amount of business. They appoint and evaluate the president and other senior management of the organization, they set policies, they plan for changes in leadership and they keep abreast of broader changes in society that may have consequences for their organization. Most of them do not work full-time in that organization, or even in the industry of the non-profit that they lead. It is thus imperative that the chairperson set agendas that keep the board focused on the business at hand and protect it from distractions that vie for their time. A thorough, concise agenda for trustees is the product of a process that starts well before the meeting itself.
Two weeks ahead of the meeting
At this stage of the game, the chairperson is determining which business items to include on the agenda. Some she will inherit, some she will solicit and some she will reject.
The chair must first find items of business that are already in process. Each item of business before trustees may “touch” meetings three or four times: when it is an idea that arises from conversation in a meeting; when it is sent out to committee for further research; when it is discussed; and when it is voted on. Not all business requires so many meetings; some require one sentence of explanation and a simple vote in a single meeting.
The chair can find what outstanding business remains from past meetings by reviewing the agendas and minutes of the last three meetings. She should put on the new agenda anything that was sent out for more information, tabled or discussed but not voted on.
Based on the items thereby unearthed – and her own knowledge of pending matters – the chair should then consider if any of these matters requires information beyond what is currently available to the board. Examples include:
In addition to these one-time reports, the chair needs the standard monthly reports from board committees, such as Finance and Personnel. She must contact the chairs of those committees to ask for their reports for the past month.
Finally, the chair should contact the board members asking them for items that they wish to include in the agenda for the upcoming meeting.
A chair of a board of trustees may get requests to consider business that is not a priority of the board, and she must reject those requests. A classic case would be matters of operation rather than matters of policy. For instance, the trustees have responsibility for fiscal oversight. The board should therefore pay attention to monthly budget reports and ask questions about any concerns. It should not, however, tell the director to turn down the thermostat or change supply vendors to save money. If a staffer brings such a request to the trustees, they would have to reject the request. Interested constituents of the organization might also make requests that fall outside the purview of the trustees’ responsibilities.
Eight days ahead of the meeting
A vigilant chair will send a reminder to all of the trustees notifying them that their submissions of agenda items are due in 24 hours. Email suffices for sending this reminder.
One week ahead of the meeting
If the chair did her homework two weeks before the meeting, this stage will comprise the largely clerical tasks of assembling items to create the final agenda. The work of the previous week would have resulted in her decisions as to what to include on the agenda, based on past agendas and new ideas from the board. With that taken care of, her job is now fairly straightforward:
A shrewd chair provides more than the list of topics. After each topic, she includes a clear indication of what action is to be taken on that matter at the coming meeting (e.g., “report from committee on findings” or “final vote”). She also provides references as to where members can find related documentation. New readings should be attached to the agenda. For historical documents, she might direct trustees to a particular file in the archives on the board portal. Color-coding or highlighting such information makes it extremely easy for trustees to follow.
When she sends the alert that the agenda is ready, the chair should set a tone of high expectations for the meeting. She should remind trustees that they are expected to have done all of the reading needed before the meeting, that no time will be allotted in the meeting for first readings of attached documents, and that they are expected to come prepared with their remarks on the business at hand.
Creating a pointed, effective agenda is nearly automatic for a chair who goes through these preparatory steps. The meeting that ensues is highly likely to address all pressing business without wasting precious time. A thorough, concise agenda sets a tone of professionalism. Not only do trustees know what to expect at the meeting, they are also likely to come prepared after doing the reading and reflection needed to give the business at hand their most thoughtful deliberation as a group.
Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, “Statement of Trustee Responsibility”
Association of Library Trustees, Advocates, Friends and Foundations, “Effective Meetings for Library Boards of Trustees”