Overcoming the Board Meeting Data Dump


If you’ve ever served on a nonprofit board there is a good chance you’ve had one of these experiences:

  • You arrive at a board meeting and are given 40 pages of documents that you will never read.
  • You’ve chaired a committee for three years but never actually held a meeting.
  • You were enthusiastically recruited to join, but were never told what to do once you did.

An active and engaged governing board is essential to a nonprofit’s success. However, they can be a rather difficult entity to manage. They are volunteers with numerous competing commitments. And the nonprofit staff members responsible for interfacing with the board are often stretched thin as well. This can lead to poorly planned meetings, data dumps, and unrealized good intentions. Furthermore, this dysfunction greatly inhibits the board’s ability to offer strategic oversight to the nonprofits they serve. Board members need knowledge of the organization’s mission, its operating model, and the context in which it serves. Board members also need to be personally invested in the organization. Knowledge and commitment are key characteristics of an engaged board member.

Over the next several weeks I will explore the role that an enterprise social network (ESN) can play in helping a nonprofit board create and share knowledge while also deepening the commitment level of boards. I’ll identify common challenges that nonprofit boards face and consider ways in which a board could utilize a ESN to overcome that challenge. I will also explore different board management technologies that are currently on the market.

Today’s challenge: The Board Meeting Data Dump.

The infamous board report: the stack of spreadsheets, program updates, and committee reports that board members receive when they arrive at a board meeting. How often has an executive director spent two weeks stressing over a board report, only to have board members spend all of three minutes haphazardly flipping through it before the board meeting begins. Great effort goes into the production of the material, but very little thought goes into the dissemination of the material.

I am currently in the midst of facilitating a strategic planning process for the nonprofit organization that I work for. I have utilized Doodle and Google Forms to help us schedule and prepare for meetings. In case you’re not familiar, Doodle is an online poll that assists in scheduling meetings. Google Forms is a platform to create online surveys. Board members have quickly learned how to use these tools and have found them very helpful.

FullSizeRender (5)I use Google Forms as a way to prevent the data dump. Typically a week or two before each meeting I produce materials for board members to read through. In addition to the report, I create a survey with a few questions that each attendee must respond to before the meeting. Once a response is submitted it is available for the other responders to view. This method greatly increases the likelihood that participants will not only read the material, but will develop a response to it. It creates social pressure to respond to the survey because everyone can see who has and who hasn’t. This method also allows people to share their ideas on an equal platform which increases the likelihood of divergent thinking. Even the best facilitator will struggle to get everyone to share a unique idea at a face to face meeting.

This practice also enables our face to face meetings to be far more productive. Instead of going over the material in detail to make sure everyone understands it, we are able to spend our time analyzing it, and analyzing each other’s ideas and opinions. We are able to more quickly move into synthesis and application, because everyone showed up to the meeting with the material digested and with a sense of what other people were thinking about it. Over the course of only three meetings, this subcommittee was able to uncover and articulate the core issues that need to be worked on. Meetings have been vibrant and productive.

This expereince makes me believe that a nonprofit board could utilize a ESN. Imagine if board members arrived at meetings having already worked through the material, articulated an initial response and read the ideas of their fellow board members. Instead of dull meetings spent listening to committee chairs and program heads read their reports, board members could actually spend their time creating new strategies and working through big challenges.

4 thoughts on “Overcoming the Board Meeting Data Dump

  1. Hey Jordan, great post. I like how you’re using the visibility of a public survey response to nudge people to review documents that they might otherwise avoid. ESN as nudge might be a whole topic worth exploring.

    I’m curious how you make the responses public to all other members? Do you send out the survey results once they’re completed, or is there another technique?

    1. Thanks Masha!

      The new google forms allows users to view previous responses once they submit their own. I also do a final download and send the responses out prior to the meeting as well.

  2. I love how you are using ESN to keep your board members accountable and productive. I’ve consulted with nonprofit boards before, and our team always sent pre-reads at least 2-3 days in advance, anticipating that they would probably never read them. However, the one time that we did use a survey and then presented our analysis during a call, the board proactively participated.

    It would be interesting to see how you could use ESN to increase fundraising ideas/opportunities (because we know every board member has to address this).

  3. Hi Jordan,

    After working for a few nonprofits throughout my career, the infamous week leading up to the quarterly Board meeting was always a stressful, truly haphazard time. I think utilizing an ESN is a great way to deepen Board engagement, especially utilizing the polling tools to avoid groupthink and the natural inclination many people have to not be the one person who disagrees (especially since they can’t see the responses until after they have submitted a response themselves). I also think it is really upon Board members to become more pressing for the data that nonprofit staff are often reluctant to share with their Board, such as staff turnover and retention rates. Although many Boards try to stay high level, these more micro measurements are extremely important for measuring the health of an organization and foreseeing future problems down the road. Thanks for a great post!

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