Meetings, monitoring & questions: A board’s added value

Three people meeting

Used with permission.

It takes a lot to build great boards. You need to find volunteers, do board development, help directors understand all the nuances of the ministry’s work, and more. Then there is the time and expense of holding meetings, particularly if you have a national board with directors flying in from across the country. Directors want their time to count for something significant so they want to produce value. And a charity wants a return on its investment in governance. Everyone wants to know how a governing board creates value.

Value creation

This series, How a board adds value, examines the added-value of good governance. Some boards add value in addition to governance (such as working boards that do the work itself, or management boards that make operational decisions), but our focus is only on the value of pure governance itself.

Adding value by meeting

If the board did nothing at all but call a meeting, it would still provide a valuable service to the ministry because:

  • it has the power to hire and fire the senior executive, and
  • a standard agenda item on every board agenda is the senior executive’s report.

The hierarchical relationship between the board and management means that just by holding a meeting to receive a management report, the board is holding management accountable and ensuring that it reviews and reflects on its work. This is a passive way for the board to add value, so it’s easy to do. Just call a meeting and value is produced!

Why meetings add value

For most ministries, adding value merely by holding a board meeting will add the least incremental value, because good managers will review and reflect on their work without needing to be prodded by the board. But since this is such an easy way for the board to be absolutely certain that it happens, it should not be overlooked.

Having to write a management report forces management to take a periodic pause to assess where the ministry is at. Especially when board meetings occur only two to four times a year, it also ensures that management looks beyond a month at a time to look at three or four months together and perhaps spot some developing trends. The discipline of writing a board report forces management to get out of its day-to-day management activities and think more strategically about its work.

So the next time you are tempted to cancel a board meeting because the agenda has no important decisions on it, think again. At least have a meeting to receive the management report.

Another way board meetings add value is that it is a formal meeting with the requirement that minutes be kept. Those minutes are a history of the organization that might otherwise be hard to produce.

Adding value by monitoring

A more active way a board adds value is by monitoring management against pre-determined criteria such as board policy, the strategy map and the annual action plan. Instead of relying on management to decide what to report (as in the management report), here the board tells management what it wants covered in the monitoring report.

I submit two reports to the CCCC board. One is my CEO report that includes what I want it to include, and the other is my monitoring report that the board decides what I will include. They could be combined into one report, but I think there is value in keeping them separate so that it’s clear who decides which particular element is in or out.

How monitoring adds value

Assuming that the board has made good decisions that set the boundaries for acceptable execution of the ministry’s work, the value added by monitoring is twofold:

  1. It minimizes risk by keeping the operational part of the organization within acceptable parameters and therefore helps keep the organization healthy and focused on its work.
  2. It is another strong accountability measure for staff that keeps them focused on the board’s priorities.

What the board should monitor

The board is responsible for mission accomplishment and the resources of the ministry, therefore those are what it should monitor.

The board can monitor mission accomplishment by asking management to report on items such as:

  • key success indicators related to mission accomplishment that are based on the ministry’s theory of change
  • progress on strategic initiatives at the mission level of the strategic plan 
  • results of program evaluations
  • any feedback from any source on its mission-related performance (for CCCC, this includes our tri-annual member survey and anecdotal stories we hear from our members)

To monitor ministry resources, the board could ask management to report on items like these:

  • financial statements with comparison to budget year-to-date and a forecast to yearend
  • progress on strategic initiatives on the strategy map that are below the level of mission accomplishment
  • evidence of compliance with board policies
  • staff policies (to reassure the board about HR management, risk management, and asset usage)
  • management discussion of how it interprets results, its concerns and satisfactions, and its outlook
  • assumptions (strategic, operational, financial)

The purpose of this monitoring is to satisfy the board that its expectations about performance are being met and that they understand the factors that management weighs in making its decisions.

How often management should be monitored

The frequency of monitoring will be affected by:

  • the degree of risk of a significant change, the speed with which that change could take place, and the difficulty of reversing or recovering from a negative change
  • the cost and trouble of preparing a monitoring report (for example, can they be internally prepared, or do you need to pay external consultants?)
  • the board’s confidence in the management team (how predictable their choices are)

The board should consider these factors and then decide the frequency of monitoring for each item it wants to monitor. Some could be monitored every three or four years, while others might be monitored at each board meeting.

Adding value by asking questions

Directors serving on working or management boards need to have expertise in the mission of the ministry because they are either executing the programs, or making management decisions about them. Directors on a policy board do not need such expertise because the staff has it. What is necessary is that the directors are great at governing, which means they know the questions they should be asking. The board adds value by asking good questions that help management discover any blind spots it may have.

Why questions add value

Directors’ questions will:

  • draw out management’s assumptions so they can be examined,
  • ensure that meaningful alternatives were considered and show how creative management is, and
  • check the rationale behind management’s actions or proposals so the board can understand management’s priorities and values.

When asking questions, directors should compare what is being reported/proposed for its fit with the strategy map and the logic model or theory of change previously approved by the board. Directors should look for consistency and reasonableness.

Management reports

A regular part of every board meeting is receiving management’s report (as already discussed above), usually called the Pastor’s Report or the CEO Report.

The board should read between the lines of these reports. The leader can’t include everything, so he or she must be selective in writing it. The report includes only what the leader

  • believes is most important for the board to know, or
  • wants the board to know.

Questions to ask about the management report include:

  • Does the report contain only good news?
    • If so, is anything being hidden?
  • Does the report focus on activities only?
    • If so, does management rank effort more highly than results?
  • Do the reports ever acknowledge learning and growth on the team, perhaps by learning from mistakes?
    • If not, is management self-aware and growing in expertise?

The theme today

Meeting, monitoring, and questioning all have one theme in common: keeping management sharp! Proverbs 27:17 is a great verse for this theme!

As iron sharpens iron,
so one person sharpens another.

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