If you want your board to be able to think strategically and make good governance decisions you need to provide them good reports and good information. Not that most leaders out there are providing bad information or inaccurate information, but you also need to think –if you have the right people on your board they are likely very busy in their personal and professional lives. Therefore you need to provide them information in a format that is easily understandable. Brinkerhoff (2004) states: “Mission effectiveness, the goal of a good steward, is nearly impossible without an inspired, motivated board and staff. And thus successful stewards have the ability to motivate others, to get them to go beyond the adequate to the excellent, to help them overcome obstacles; set high goals strive to be the best at their chosen craft.” This is becoming a tall order, you have to provide information that is brief, easy to digest and remember, and it has to be exciting and inspiring.
A few years back our organization was engaged in a lot of activities and there was a lot of growth going on. At the time our board met monthly (we meet every two months now). Every month my CEO report became bigger and bigger. I realized that quite a few of the board members were not reading the report until the meeting even though I would email it out to them a few days before. There was so many great things going on in the organization that I wanted to report on it all, but in reality as the report became a single spaced twenty plus page document most were not reading it. Not that they were not interested they would usually make me walk them through the whole report during the board meeting. The problem with this is board members were on the spot to decide what there impression of the outcomes in the report were, they did not have a lot of time to consider the reports before at times making decisions about action items. I was getting frustrated as I knew there were a lot of impressive things going on but we were hard pressed to give the items a lot of consideration during the board meetings. I decided to make two major changes. The first was to consider our board members like any other group we would market or promote ourselves too. We do newsletters and collateral for the public, our donor’s, volunteers etc. Essentially I got our Marketing and Communications Director to help create a newsletter format for the board. Not unlike our other newsletters, it has photos of what is going on in the Houses and it is rich with info graphics and charts and not quite so heavy on the text. There is text for sure describing outcomes and initiatives but it also has a lot more white space and the information is easier to digest. Essentially we knew for our board like any other stakeholder group we needed to grab their attention as their world was full of reports, data and other information competing for their attention.
The second thing I started to do different was I started sending a weekly email every Friday afternoon. I call it simply “The Top 5”. The email is a list of the most exciting top 5 to 10 things that happened that week. Could be a donor story, someone gave us $100,000 or two little girls had a lemonade stand and raised $49 bucks for us. I try to mix up the items quite a bit, stories about good things that happened to our kids, volunteer statistics, and how many hits on our website that week. Only rule is the “stories” have to be sound bites- each item can only be one sentence or at very most two. Now shortly after I started this practice our board members started talking about how much more they knew about what was going on in the organization. They didn’t need to orient themselves to what was going on –they felt more in the loop. Now the reality was I was actually providing them less total information. The newsletters were less than half as many pages and the text was much thinner. The information however was in formats that were easy to both digest and remember.
The interesting thing is the practice has had an impact on the internal operations as well. I have been doing the top 5 for six years now. Imagine if you asked the CEO of IBM to list 5 to 10 awesome things that happened in their organization every week, do you think could do it? I don’t know the answer but doing it is an incredible discipline. It forces you to look for great things big and small happening in and for your organization. To come up with at least 5 sound bites each week takes a little bit of thinking, so I have all my staff on alert to “catch their co-workers doing a good job”. Essentially the whole staff group knows to email ‘Great news stories” to the Director they work for each Friday morning. In turn the Directors email the good news in their department to me. Usually by Friday morning I have a few Top Five items typed and ready to go, but our staff team always has a few items that I hadn’t noticed or wasn’t aware of. Anyway the short story is our organization has become better at celebrating our successes but also in always attending to items that we should inform and promote to our other stakeholder groups.
Brinckerhoff, P.C (2004) Nonprofit Stewardship: A better way to lead your mission-based organization:
New York: Fieldstone Alliance