A Planning Guide for Board Meeting Agendas

board meeting agenda

When is your next board meeting,” I asked one of my Executive Director clients.

We had been discussing her relationship with her board and had just started to develop a plan for how she could collaborate with her board chair to design a great board meeting. Right up until my question, she was a bundle of enthusiasm.

ME: “When is your next board meeting?”

HER: Um, great question… one second. Let me see…”

She looked at her calendar and raised an eyebrow.

HER: “Oops, it’s on Thursday!”

ME: “Thursday? Really? Today is Monday. You mean in three days!?!?”

HER: “Yeah but it’s ok. It just kinda snuck up on me. Not a big problem… I’ll just pull up our last board meeting agenda and work from that. That’s what I usually do. Can you help me tweak it a bit?”

The board meeting snuck up on you?????

Board meetings should not sneak up on anyone. They sure don’t sneak up on Doug Fridsma at The American Medical Infomatics Association.

Doug is one of my coaching clients and I like to think I am more than occasionally of value to him in his work. (Note: If you want to learn more about my coaching services, click here.)

In our last session he was of substantive value to me – illustrating to me yet again that I get as much as I give in the work that I do.

Doug showed me the approach he uses to plan out the board meeting agenda for the entire year, well in advance. His process is enormously useful and he has generously agreed to let me share it with you today.

WHY SET THE BOARD MEETING AGENDA SO FAR AHEAD?

When I was the Executive Director of GLAAD, I always tried to think a few board meetings ahead. It was one of my five-star board chairs that prodded me to develop the habit.

The biggest reason? I wanted to be sure that I used board members’ time well. It didn’t matter if I thought they were rock stars or if I wished they’d consider joining a different board. They were all volunteers and I had an obligation to respect their time.

And the fact is, board meetings are worth every minute you spend planning for them. I took this very seriously.

Some nonprofits meet monthly, some every other month, and some once a quarter. At GLAAD it was quarterly. I tried to think about all four board meetings in the aggregate and tied milestone dates to the annual goals we had as an organization. We would build work plans around those dates so we could get the board everything it needed to make key decisions for those particular dates.

In order to keep things organized, all presentations were due early the week of the board meeting and on the Friday of a board meeting weekend, we would spend 2 ½ hours in a “dress rehearsal.” Yes, we took board meetings very seriously.

In the rehearsal, a senior staffer would give a presentation and the rest of us would play the role of different board members – especially the board members who asked the toughest questions and the ones you could count on to ask a question where the only possible response was, “huh?”

Adjustments were made accordingly and we were all ready to go. The big benefit for me as the leader was that I saw the presentations together and was able to then craft my comments to help create a real overall narrative for the weekend.

Super helpful.

THERE’S AN ANNUAL CYCLE TO THE ACTIVITIES OF YOUR ORGANIZATION

Take a look at your calendar. You’ll probably find it fairly predictable.

Let’s start with finances. You have a fiscal year and you need budget approval far enough in advance of the start of the year to give the staff run room to plan for revenue increases, staff increases (hopefully), new initiatives, etc.

Then there is your audit. You want to have that complete with a reasonable timeframe after the close of the fiscal year. And of course you want quarterly or mid-year budget vs. actual reports.

Then you need some kind of kick off to the year to level the playing field – what are your goals for the year, how do you plan to get there, and what are your respective (board and staff) road maps for success?

What else? You want to build in some kind of professional development opportunity each year – I’m thinking a fundraising training, a messaging training – something that helps them become more effective in their roles.

I bet you might have some big annual event that you need to plan for that demands all hands on deck. Gotta build that in.

That seems like plenty to remind you that there aren’t too many surprises in the annual trajectory of a nonprofit organization.

So now Doug’s approach to help you plan…

DOUG’S ANNUAL BOARD MEETING AGENDA PLANNING GUIDE

Here’s the concept. If you agree with the premise that there is a cyclical nature to the board meeting topics each year, then what you need is a visual that gives leaders of the organization a sense of where each board meeting fits into the larger context of the year.

And what if you reviewed that planning document each December? You could actually anticipate topics and give folks a fair amount of heads up if they were presenting! You could actually invite an outside speaker that would enrich or inspire the board if you knew that was coming down the pike at the board meeting after next. You could even give folks a reasonable amount of time to write a board report and (gasp!) get it to the board so they could actually have sufficient time to read it!

I have tweaked Doug’s planning document and created two of them for you.

Doug has meetings every month (and he and I are working on how to persuade the board that’s too frequent).

Because I feel so strongly that monthly board meetings are (a) a huge time bandit for staff (b) provide too much opportunity for the board to get into the weeds and (c) are typically too short to accomplish everything a board needs to accomplish, I am not including a guide for that meeting frequency (ooh, I feel another blog post coming on!)

It is my hope that these will be helpful to you in getting out in front of board meetings and to make the very best use of the time your board members donate to be there.

And this, after all, is a key to building an effective board. You can bring on the best board members in the world but if you don’t engage them, enrich them, inspire them before you call them to action… well… when you call, no one will be home.

First, a planning guide for those who have board meetings bi-monthly.

Bi-monthly board meeting agenda

Click to expand and download

And next, the planning guide for those who have quarterly board meetings.

quarterly board meeting agenda

Click to expand and download

NEXT STEPS

Here are a few more articles that can help you plan and run better board meetings:

What Makes A Board Meeting A Home Run?

A Board Meeting Should Be Like a Bowl of Wheaties

Ten Good Questions Board Members Should Ask At Board Meetings

Joan Garry
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Joan Garry

Widely known as the "Dear Abby" of nonprofit leadership, Joan 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.
Joan Garry
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  • This might be my favorite post yet. I’ve done some of the work to be able to create these great cyclic conversations and milestones, but it never would have occurred to me to tie that to agendas that far ahead! This really has the potential to make my life so much easier and our meetings much more inspirational and productive! Thank you Joan, and Doug!

  • Holly. I just sent Doug a screen shot of your note. He will be so pleased. I am too. Anything that can make your life easier feels like a home run. Thanks for the feedback.

  • Brian Sankarsingh

    Excellent post! My board is currently planning a retreat and I am going to bring this forward for discussion. Thank you.

  • Lawrence Hunt

    An annual schedule of times and major agenda items is common in the for-profit sector but until I read this post I wasn’t aware that nonprofits were adopting this practice. In one organization I was involved with board meetings were supposed to be held each month but they were never planned in advance and an agenda was drawn up an hour before a meeting started. After serving two terms on the board I was unable to get them to adopt a more disciplined approach so I stepped down. I would be interested to know if anyone else has had a similar experience.

  • Bryan Partee

    Question. On the quarterly meetings, why back-to-back (Sep/Oct) meetings? Is it just the holidays? If so would we be better served going January, April, July, October (or something like that) to spread things out?

    • Bryan. You can totally do that. It depends on how your fiscal year runs. I like 2 fall meetings because you can dedicate one to getting everyone in gear for year end fundraising and one for looking ahead to the new year with budget and goal approvals.

  • Leigh Ross

    We are attempting this and I found the post very helpful. We are a very small nonprofit who’s board currently meets monthly, partly because we are going through a big transition – ED is retiring after 27 years. My questions is can you also calendar out committee meetings? I think that would be helpful for our group that tends to rest on its laurels in between the board meetings.