The Strauss Blog

The Best-Intentioned Association Boards Can Get Sidetracked

A lot of thought and energy goes into preparing the agenda for an association’s board of directors meeting, but without proper planning and structure, a strong board can easily lose track of priorities throughout the meeting. How to plan an agenda and how to ensure that board members arrive prepared is equally about respecting fellow board members and senior staff.

Where to Start

Planning a board agenda should start with a conversation between the board chair and the chief staff officer (executive director or CEO) about priorities for the meeting. This conversation should then continue by requesting agenda items from all other board members. Following input from the board of directors, the chair and chief staff officer can then start to formulate the agenda.

Determine the Strategic Approach

Creating a board agenda is a delicate task that must be considered from multiple angles; there are a few different approaches a board can choose to take. The association consultants who lead both the CEO Symposium, offered by both CSAE and ASAE, as well as ASAE’s Exceptional Boards Workshop, suggest that the strategic or pressing issues appear first on the agenda, followed by any routine business towards the end. Tecker International calls this a Four Part Agenda and describes this approach in an article on their website.

Mark Engle and his colleagues at Association Management Center divide the meeting differently, but still into four parts. They suggest beginning meetings with “generative discussions”; in their article Critical Conversations, they describe how to hold these important discussions, as well as how to format an agenda in the four part structure.

Despite the two different approaches, both proposed agenda formats have in one aspect in common. That is to put meaningful conversations, at the beginning of the meeting and to move routine business to the end of the agenda. Once the association has assembled their final agenda, there is much more to do before the board is ready to meet.

Preparation is Key

Even with the best structure for a meeting agenda, preparation by all participants is critical. Requests to add an item to the agenda should be made in advance and requests to discuss something on the consent agenda, if you use one, needs to come in advance as that means removing it from the consent agenda and adding it to the main meeting agenda.

When part of an agenda is committee reports, either add those to the consent agenda, or only raise items requiring board decision. Reading a report wastes everyone’s time in the same way that bringing-up committee requests during a meeting and not in advance does. Boards have limited time together and need to make the best use of this limited resource. If you would like something discussed during a meeting, raise it while the agenda is being prepared and send all background information well in advance for consideration. Without both of these things, meetings can go sideways in a hurry.

Getting Back on Track

The board chair is the meeting referee and is supported in this role by the chief staff officer. When a meeting goes astray, they need to work together to get it back on track.

This can include:

  • Moving the non-core issue to “other business” on the agenda
  • Tabling discussion on a specific matter to future meeting
  • Striking a task force to review the matter and advise the board later

The time that directors have together, in person, is a precious resource and often comes at significant cost. Making the best use of this time together is a key responsibility of the chair with support from other directors and management.

If you have not attended either of the CEO Symposium or Exceptional Boards as a leadership team, I encourage you to do so. While different, they offer tremendous value to an association leadership team of senior volunteers and key staff leaders. These sessions offer great resources and opportunities to learn from colleagues.

Here are three more articles from my colleagues to help you with your next association board meeting:

https://strauss.ca/less-is-more-facilitating-association-board-meeting-productivity/

https://strauss.ca/youre-ready-board-meeting-board-members/

https://strauss.ca/preparing-for-association-board-meetings/