ISSUE NUMBER 28   |   SEPTEMBER 29, 2014 

Stop the Board Docket Madness

5 practical ways to reduce labor intensity, simplify work, and generate more creativity among your staff 


Every year, and generally every quarter, tens of thousands of foundations and their staff go into a frenzy of activity preparing for board meetings. They prepare binders of carefully scripted summaries of the grants they're recommending for approval. These involve layers of bureaucratic approval processes, PowerPoint presentations, page lengths, word counts, and wordsmithing.  


I have clients who warn me in advance that they will not be available for two full weeks before their board meeting deadlines. Then they spend another half week on the actual board meeting, and finally they spend the next week catching up on emails, voicemails, and meetings they couldn't get to during the previous weeks.  


That's 3.5 weeks when these foundation executives have no time to think, be creative, work on bigger-picture issues, or build relationships or solve problems. It's also 3.5 weeks when their grantees, consultants, and partners have to go into a holding pattern.  


And the truly terrifying part of this is that it happens four times a year.  


Here are five things you can do to reduce the labor intensity of your board meetings:


1. Clarify the goals of your board meetings. What are the top three things you want to accomplish? List them, then identify the most efficient ways to accomplish them.


2. Calculate the actual staff time and cost of each board meeting. Ask a subset of your staff to jot down all of the time they spend directly preparing for or participating in the next two board meetings, and how. They should include team meetings to vet projects, write-ups, rehearsals, etc. Involve a cross section of your staff so that you have an idea of the time spent by program officers, associates, administrative assistants, finance, and communications staff.


3. Ask staff for their opinions. I can guarantee that they have opinions about board meetings and board dockets, and they probably have some great ideas for making them more efficient and less exhausting. Discuss the best ideas and prioritize them.


4. Ask your board for ideas. These are busy people who want to make sure that their time is spent well -- and who have fiduciary responsibility to make sure your staff and foundation are adequately allocating time and resources.


5. Generate creative solutions. Maybe you could hold three board meetings a year instead of four. Perhaps you need only bring bigger grants and initiatives to your board for approval. Or you could allow for multiyear grants that the board doesn't have to approve annually.


The bottom line is this: The best foundations I know reduce their board docket madness to the bare minimum. For more tips and tools for grantmakers, check out the Resources page of my website.


2014 Kris Putnam-Walkerly. All rights reserved. Permission granted to excerpt or reprint with attribution. 

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Kris Putnam-Walkerly, MSW, is the president of Putnam Consulting Group, Inc. and author of the Philanthropy411 blog.

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