5 Tips for Creating an Effective Board Meeting Agenda


originally posted on www.boardable.com on April 25, 2018

I have sat on numerous nonprofit boards and consulted on a number of others. I’ve served as an officer on some, including as president or board chair. One thing I’ve noticed is how the board meeting agenda sets the tone for an entire board meeting, and how much it determines if you have engaged or disengaged board members.

I have witnessed firsthand (and, admittedly, sometimes caused) each of the following mistakes that nonprofits often make when setting a board meeting agenda. Based on that experience, I offer five tips for preventing these problems from befalling your organization.

1) Avoid the “blah blah blah” board meeting agenda.


Instead of stacking up reports on your meeting agenda, send them to the board in advance. Board members can read and review the reports at their leisure, and use board meeting time for discussion. Or, better yet, they can focus on the strategic issues facing your organization. Your board, after all, should focus on the future or the 20,000-foot view of the organization. The more you drown them in details, the more likely they’ll check out.


Too many nonprofit board meetings fall into the trap of reciting report after report. If your agenda has the word “report” on it more than two or three times, you have too many. Board members do not want to spend an hour (or more) listening to staff or fellow members talk at them.

I find this the number one reason for disengaged board members. You should have board members, not bored members!

2) Beware of information overload. 


Keep board packets to a reasonable length (maybe 10 pages for an average board meeting, 20 for a special meeting). Committees can digest the details and provide a high-level overview for the rest of the board. Your board members need to stay out of the weeds, and they can’t do that if an overloaded agenda keeps filling their heads with details.


I sat on a board that took my first tip too literally and drowned board members in paper. Literally, the board reports ran more than 50 pages each month. How closely do you think I read all of that data? You guessed it, not at all. I skimmed for the high-level data. Worse yet, the meetings went through the reports. I didn’t even need to read them!

3) But don’t “under-load” the board meeting agenda, either.


Here, just fixing the agenda may not solve the problem, but it can provide a good start. First, get input on planned agenda items, and find out if the person(s) with needed information have what you need to make the decision(s) under question. If not, table those items for the next meeting, or give a firm deadline if they’re to be included.

Second, put the agenda out long enough ahead of the meeting—with assignments of which board member will lead which discussion—so it encourages people to come prepared. Beyond the agenda, the board chair may need to call people ahead of the meeting to ask them to bring or share materials.


Information “under-load” hobbles board members as much as having too much information. I have sat on boards where members get way too little information to make decisions, or the information comes at the last minute, not giving them enough time to thoroughly read and digest it. Either the information stays with the staff, or volunteers do not come through with assigned information-gathering assignments.

4) Structure agendas so meetings don’t become marathons.


Match the length of the agenda to the length of the meeting. Seems simple enough, but how do you do that in practice? I recommend setting time limits for reporting. I’ve found that spending about 25 percent of the meeting on reporting and getting through the “have tos” (approving the agenda and prior minutes, financial review, answering any questions on the reports) leaves the majority of the meeting to discuss important topics. A consent agenda helps here since it consolidates routine items.

If you master this, you’ll reap two major benefits. First, you’ll get the routine stuff out of the way so you have sufficient time to discuss strategic direction and other critical issues. Second, you’ll cultivate discussions that better engage your board members! Assuming you recruit professionals whose opinions and experience you value, these discussions give them an opportunity to share those opinions and give you the benefit of their experience.


How many board meetings have way too ambitious an agenda? I know I have sat in too many of those meetings to count … and created some of those agendas as well. If your board gets through only the first few items and has only 15 minutes left for the next 10, you have an unbalanced agenda. Either you need to lengthen the meetings (and who wants that?!) or shorten the agenda.

5) Focus on substance over form when building the agenda.


If you focus on the above the above tips, then you’ll likely start doing this naturally. By getting key reports to your board members ahead of the meeting, keeping the agenda focused on big-pictures items instead of minutiae, and matching agenda length to meeting length, you will consistently keep the board focused on your nonprofit’s most important issues. From there, you can develop an agenda format that serves the unique way your organization’s board works.


I have had people ask me for suggested formats for their board meeting agenda. However, how the agenda looks matters much less than what you plan to cover. If you need suggested formats, there are some available online. But understand that a pretty-looking agenda will not hide a poorly planned meeting. Plan the meeting well first, and then figure out the best way to communicate that plan to the rest of the board.


Need help building your board meeting agendas? Boardable is a software platform that centralizes all communication between you and your board. Find the best meeting times, securely store all of your documents, archive discussion threads and more—all in one place.