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Information Overload: How to Begin Building Board Content Management Systems

Some boards get a bad rap. Whether by staff, executive leadership, or even board leadership, they are assessed unfairly in their use of organizational information. At far ends of the continuum are two seemingly conflicting approaches: “they won’t read it, so don’t send too much” vs. “send everything, so they will be informed.” As different as they seem, these strategies are more similar than not, in that they both deny the board the opportunity to govern effectively.

Somewhere in the middle – or, more likely, on a different continuum – is the best practice of providing the board with the right information needed to make timely and informed decisions. To that end, the process of preparing for board (and committee) meetings naturally gets a lot of attention. In a way, though, that’s like cramming for a monthly test – the board will discuss x,y, and z this month, so they must review a, b, and c two weeks prior. But what about the equivalent of a cumulative final exam, which might mean annual outcomes measurement for a nonprofit board? How is the information needed for that determined and distributed?

Surprisingly (or not), there is remarkably little guidance available on how boards, board members, and board committees should manage the abundance of information they receive over the course of a month or year, let alone an entire board term. Each organization (and culture) cultivates its own mechanisms for defining, distributing, storing, and accessing content. So let’s look at some key considerations in beginning to build a best practice content management system:

Know the Role

Embedded in every nonprofit board’s scope of responsibility is the duty of care, which requires board members to make prudent and informed decisions on behalf of the organization. As noted in Trustee Magazine, such “decisions must be informed, meaning that the board member should make efforts to become familiar with the relevant, available facts.” In taking reasonable steps to protect organizational assets and ensure their proper use, board members are obliged to ask questions if they don’t find the information they receive from management to be clear or complete.

Beyond the fiduciary aspect of the role, the board also is responsible for planning, assessing organizational outcomes and impact, advancing the mission, and more. Such activities are unlikely to be completed within the confines of a single board or committee meeting, but rather as part of ongoing processes that revolve around requesting and reviewing the right information on an ongoing basis.

Determine Right Information

Defining the “right” information should be a joint effort between the board and chief executive. According to Strong Partners: Building a Excellent Working Relationship Between the Board and its Chief Executive, a publication of First Nonprofit Foundation, “a great communication system… is the current that send its leaders accurate, stimulating, and invigorating information, the lifeblood of an organization.” That description reminds us that information is meant to be neither scarce nor excessive, nor dry and disinteresting. Instead, it releases “the collective energy of the organization’s leadership to focus on its mission, goals, and pressing decisions.”

Given the importance of transparency, the report continues, board and executive management must collaborate in determining the specific content and frequency of formal reporting that is most useful to both parties. Typical content includes: outcome information related to achievement of the organization’s mission, regular recaps of financial status, progress reports on strategic goals, and updates on emerging challenges and opportunities.

Government, funders, and other certifying bodies provide starting points for determining valuable content and organizations must consider existing reporting schedules as well as the time and resources devoted to documentation when determining what information to bring to the board. The Strong Partners report offers a set of criteria for helping the board and chief executive determine what constitutes “useful information:”

  1. Relevant — Is it clear why this information is needed? Does the information help the board discharge its duties?
  2. Meaningful — Does the information address a significant factor, such as changing participant characteristics, an organizational strategic goal, financial performance, or an unfolding opportunity?
  3. Best Available — Does the information rely on the best available indicators of the situation or condition being described? Can better indicators be developed?
  4. Reliable — Will the methods used to gather and analyze data hold up to scrutiny?
  5. Timely — To be relevant to the current agenda, how up-to-date must the information be?
  6. Judicious — Is the value of the information in line with the time and organizational resources it takes to gather, analyze, and report it?

Not everything requires full board deliberation, of course, so committees and tasks forces also must work in partnership with executive management or designated staff to determine what information they need, as well.

Determine Right Formats

Not all formats or mechanisms for presenting (and accessing) information are created equal, nor need they be. But deciding which formats will be used for communicating critical information is “nearly as important as determining what to communicate,” notes the Strong Partners report.

Core materials that get updated regularly to reflect changes in policies and plans typically comprise a board orientation manual or handbook. According to BoardSource, this handbook should include: the history and general description of the organization, all legal documents (ie. Articles of Incorpration, bylaws), financial data, organizational strategic framework, and other board-related information, including contact and biographical information for all board members, meeting dates, committee job descriptions, board member responsibilities, board policies, and recent meeting minutes. While organizations often refer to this collection as the “board binder,” BoardSource indicates the most efficient way to manage and present the information is to post it online, through a secure board portal.

As the Strong Partners report explains, some information, such as organizational budgets and a comprehensive strategic plan, might be presented in detail only on an annual basis, yet committees and board members might continue to refer to them throughout the year and receive frequent updates via email or other messaging. And, on a very regular basis, boards receive meeting materials and might prefer to review information in a dashboard format. While dashboard’s can provide an efficient graphic view of overall system performance, they can not show everything. Boards must work to interpret what numbers mean in relation to the mission and goals, remembering that “…just because information has been sent or presented, it doesn’t necessarily mean that real communication has occurred.”

Amid the modern glut of communications through email, conference calls, interactive websites and board portals, and more, nonprofit leaders must determine what mechanisms work best for the board, as a whole, and for individual board members. One size might not fit all, but modern technology certainly allows for accommodation of individual preferences, provided staff has the capacity to honor preferences and board members remain engaged.

Don’t Stop There

If information is indeed the “lifeblood” of an organization, it’s the board and staff who work together to ensure its circulation. A healthy flow of information includes clarity not only about how information is accumulated and culled, but also where is it housed, how is it organized, by whom, and for how long. When considered in the context of organizational health, it’s easy to see how technology increasingly enhances the easy, effective, interactive, and ongoing use of invaluable information.

Sonia J. Stamm

Sonia J. Stamm is Governance Consultant at BoardEffect. Since almost our inception, she has shared a best practice perspective on governance with our team and clients, partnering to guide boards toward optimal implementation of our software. As founder and principal of a nonprofit leadership consulting firm, Sonia supports the evolution of mission-based organizations through her work in board development, leadership transition and succession, and organizational effectiveness. A seasoned facilitator, trainer, and consultant, she enjoys guiding boards and organizations through critical junctures in their development.