How Nonprofits Can Keep Strategy Front and Center

As a consultant to nonprofit organizations, I often hear board members complain, “We almost never have time in board meetings to talk about strategy. We’re too busy with board business!”

This, of course, raises the question: What kind of board business requires more sustained attention than strategy?

Honestly, none. But in the nonprofit world, many boards never get around to discussing strategic issues, because tradition dictates a certain unproductive, unengaging rhythm and template for board meetings. In the name of fiduciary responsibility, boards fill their agendas with operational details and report-outs of routine activities, and board meetings become exercises in tedium and trivia.

The typical meeting opens with approval of the minutes. Then there’s a long discussion of that month’s financials. Then each committee reports out. On and on it goes, and then it’s quitting time, and the meeting wraps up — until a few weeks later, when a new meeting unspools itself in a similarly unengaging way.

Strategy for many nonprofit boards is something to think about every three years or so. When the time rolls around, they hire a consultant to facilitate an in-depth planning process, which involves full- or half-day retreats; they develop a set of goals that they hope will drive the organization’s work for the next few years; and then they put that plan on the shelf until the next strategic-planning process, several years away — except when they need to dust it off in the interim to send to funders as part of the grant-application process.

That’s not how things should work. Boards need to keep strategy front and center in everything they do. But that requires overhauling how organizations put together their board agendas, which can be more disruptive than you might expect. Still, there are effective ways to get it done.

Strategy, At Every Meeting

I suggest that at least half of each board meeting should be devoted to strategic discussions. That’s not easy when you already regularly have a full agenda of non-strategic matters to discuss. But it’s possible to free up that time by cutting out the topics that are operational or more effectively attended to outside of full board meetings.

The area that typically takes up the most time in meetings is the board’s fiduciary responsibility. That’s of central importance, obviously, because the board needs to know that the organization’s funds are being used legally and ethically to further its mission. The board needs to confirm that the organization is investing and accounting for its financial assets properly, treating staff and clients and vendors fairly, paying its payroll taxes, filing all appropriate forms with the IRS, and being truthful to its donors about the use of their contributions. But here’s the thing: If you have a good treasurer and an on-top-of-it finance committee, most questions concerning fiduciary responsibility can be investigated and answered outside of full board meetings.

Boards also need to take CEO oversight seriously. That’s arguably a board’s important job — hiring, supporting, monitoring, evaluating, and, if needed, replacing the CEO. But none of that should routinely take up a lot of time in meetings. Instead, boards should make the evaluation of CEOs an intensive, once-a-year process.

Boards play an important role in fundraising, too, and many spend a lot of time discussing the topic. As a fundraising consultant, I can vouch for its importance, but I can also assure you that it doesn’t need to be discussed nearly as much as people think. A commitment to fundraising should largely be assumed, and the best time to develop plans and carry out development work is mostly between full board meetings.

To sum up: Boards should attend to their fiduciary responsibility, CEO oversight, and fundraising duties, but they can do so without eating up enormous sections of board-meeting time. And with all that extra time, they can better direct their attention to strategy.

A More Strategic Agenda

Here’s how a two-hour board meeting with a productive focus on strategy might unfold:

The board might open the meeting with a 10-minute mission moment, during which a staff member, board member, or client tells a story of the organization at work, something to remind everyone of why they’re there. Then the board approves the consent agenda, which includes minutes, the financial report, and any committee reports that don’t need discussion. Boards approve these routine items in the consent agenda in a single vote, though they have the right to pull particular items out of the consent agenda for closer consideration.

At that point, 20 minutes or so into the meeting, it’s time to spend an hour discussing a strategic issue.

What issue? Boards should turn to their strategic plan — that is, the one they don’t want sitting on the shelf. Let’s say the plan has five strategic goals. Let’s also say that the board meets six times a year. Assign one of those goals to each of the first five meetings of the year. In January, it’s Goal One. In March, it’s Goal Two. And so on. In advance of each meeting, the staff should prepare a brief report touching on progress and challenges in that goal area, with a focus on what’s working and what’s not. There should be some framing questions at the end for the board: options for moving forward, or open-ended questions about challenges that have arisen. The discussion should be honest, collaborative, and strategic. These can and should be vibrant, engaging conversations, designed to elicit genuine input from the board.

At the end of that hour’s strategic discussion, I recommend spending 20 minutes in a Q&A with the CEO, building off a bulleted CEO report that would have been included in the board packet. After that, the board chair can conduct a quick evaluation of the meeting — what worked and what could have gone better — and close the main section of the meeting with some inspiring words.

Finally, every meeting should include an executive session as a standing agenda item. This is an opportunity for board members to discuss issues without the CEO or other staff present. This session need not be used every time, but having the executive session as a standing item for each meeting keeps CEOs from worrying that they are in trouble when an executive session suddenly appears on the agenda.

So, essentially, here’s the plan: At the start of the meeting, 20 minutes for a welcome, a mission story, and adoption of the consent agenda. At the end of the meeting, 40 minutes or so for a conversation with the CEO, a meeting evaluation, final comments, and a standing executive session. And in between, at the heart of the meeting, 60 minutes for an in-depth discussion of one of the major strategic goals the organization has set for itself. That’s half of the meeting time directed toward strategy.

That model leaves organizations with a sixth meeting, at year’s end, where the board can approve the next year’s budget — itself a strategic conversation, because nothing speaks to an organization’s priorities more than how it spends its money. And at that sixth meeting the board can also finalize the annual evaluation of the CEO.

Some caveats:

• This only works if there are active committees digging into issues between board meetings. The finance committee, most importantly, needs to study the numbers thoroughly so that the rest of the board can feel comfortable in approving the financial report as part of the consent agenda.

• This only works if there’s a board chair who controls the meeting and keeps the conversation from drifting into minutiae. If a board member pulls the finance report out of the consent agenda for discussion, for example, that’s the board member’s right, but the chair should respond, “Please let us know the one or two areas where you have questions, and we’ll get those answered.” This is not an opportunity for a sprawling conversation about each and every line item.

• This only works if the board does its homework and reads the materials (including and especially the consent agenda) in advance of the meeting.

• And this only works if the board chair and CEO take the agenda-creating process seriously, and if the staff provide transparent and engaging reports on the strategic issues being discussed.

I recognize that not everything is as simple in practice as in theory. And, yes, I know that unanticipated and critically important issues will come up that will require immediate board action, and that those issues will alter the neat little meeting agenda I’ve set out. But if organizations use this agenda as a template, they’ll be off to a good start in keeping the board focused on strategic issues — which means they’ll do a better job of actually taking care of business.

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