The Secret to Getting Things Done: Tracking your Board’s Activity with a Board Action Report

Q&A summary with NFP expert and Atlantic Business Magazine CEO Hall of Fame member Darrell Kuhn

Your board likely engages with many meeting actions throughout the course of each year. Since there can be numerous outstanding action items at any point in time, it’s important that these outstanding actions be captured effectively in a detailed Board Action Report format for inclusion in future board meeting agendas. In this article we’ll be covering three main areas to help you set up your own Board Action Report so your board can get things DONE:

  1. Why the Board Action Report is so important to board meetings and the board in general
  2. Who is responsible for maintaining this document and bringing it forward to the board meeting agenda?
  3. What does the actual report look like? (with a free sample report) 

Why is the Board Action Report so important? 

The Board needs to complete all of its activities and actions throughout the year, which as you know can be many. Some actions may happen right at the board meeting through discussions, while others may be more repetitive over the course of the year. Some may also be from a general to do list. Either way, every item your board is dealing with needs to be tracked thoroughly as it is easy for items to slip through the cracks, potentially leaving your board in a precarious position. 

When items are missed or forgotten, it can leave your board looking inefficient or inept in the eyes of your donors. Nobody wants to lose donor support, so it’s important to ensure that donors feel that the board is competent. That is often proven through the board meeting process which is made possible by an effective Board Action Report.

Who’s responsible for the report?

You may assume that the Board Action Report would fall on the Executive Director. While they do have some input and involvement, it is actually the Corporate Secretary who is typically responsible for ensuring the board meeting agenda is as effective as possible. 

Shortly after each board meeting, the Corporate Secretary and the Executive Director should get together to determine if there are any items that just happened at the board meeting that need to be included in the action report. Sometimes the board needs to follow up on something that requires a decision or some sort of action at a future meeting. This needs to be tracked with a target date for completion, whether that is at the next meeting, next quarter or just pushed to later in the year.

The other area that the Executive Director and the Corporate Secretary will review is what needs to be included at the next board meeting. There are going to be items that are coming forward, and those need to be highlighted in order to give the Executive Director time to prepare and complete any work, reporting or follow up actions that may be needed prior to distributing any information in advance of the next meeting.

Once all board members have received all of the information regarding actionable items well in advance of an upcoming meeting, then the Executive Director, the Corporate Secretary and the Board Chair can get together to set the agenda, and those items from the board action report can be brought forward to the agenda. This way nothing gets missed. Keep in mind there will also always be some repeating items and new items to discuss. 

What does the Board Action Report look like?

When you’re first setting up your Board Action Report document, you’ll need to put in place the date that each initial item was approved, which is usually a previous board meeting as a reference point. It should also include a brief description of why that item is on the report.

Next, it should be noted when the item was last reviewed and when it should be brought forward to the board. That way you know those are two key dates for future board meeting agendas. Finally, you should set the responsibility. In most cases it’s either going to be the Corporate Secretary if it’s a governance related matter, or the Executive Director if it’s an operational matter, and they would make sure that those items are completed and provided to the board well in advance of the board meeting. 

Typically, the Board Action Report is divided into a few different areas. The first would be new items that have come forward and need to be followed up on at a future board meeting. Then there are repetitive items like financial reports. Some of these reports will be either on a monthly basis or quarterly review basis. Other repetitive items could include things like compliance reports, external auditor meetings, or annual reports – all of which need to be followed up on either quarterly or annually.

One more area to include is for reviewing governing policies. It’s important that policies are reviewed periodically – some of them annually and some on a biannual basis. Having those policies identified in the Board Action Report and spread out to review periodically (and not all at once) will help avoid overwhelming the board. The Corporate Secretary is responsible for first reviewing those policies to determine if there’s any actions or amendments that are necessary. Then it may be just a matter of a quick review at the board meeting. 

Setting up your Board Action Report

As you can see in the above example, we’ve created a simple Excel spreadsheet. This may be an easy place for you to start as well, or you may also decide on using some type of task management software. The choice is yours. 

You’ll notice at the very top we begin with the date reviewed. Typically this will be reviewed at least 10 days prior to the board meeting. This way any information that comes from this document will go to the agenda and get out to the board members well in advance so that everyone can be prepared. It should also be personalized to your particular organization. 

Next, let’s set some headings that will help you track progress on each item:

  • The action item
  • The date it was approved 
  • The date it was last updated
  • The completion date

Typically we remove all completed items at the end of the year. This way you can visualize your progress and see what’s been completed throughout the year. Adding a Cycle heading allows us to designate whether something is a monthly, quarterly or annual item. Finally, the Responsibility column clearly indicates who is responsible for overseeing that particular item through to completion.

New Items

In our example report there are some new items, starting with “Hold a special meet and greet with donors.” Let’s say the board came up with this at the last board meeting. When is it going to be updated? Well we don’t know that information yet because it’s too recent. In this case, the Executive Director and Corporate Secretary need to identify an appropriate date to have that meet and greet and what kind of preparation work is necessary to send out invitations. Once that date is decided upon it would be noted in the Date Last Updated field with a notation made that the actual event is going to be held on this particular date at the established venue and time. 

Another new item we see is for board training. At this particular meeting, the board decided that there was a training session required on Conflict of Interest. Perhaps some board members had brought this up as an issue that they were concerned about and as such, there’s going to be a training session to discuss what that looks like, starting with a review of the governing policy of Conflict of Interest. We see it was last updated after the previous meeting. There was a brief discussion that this is going to be held – likely later in the year – and once they have the date set they will proceed with that training session. 

It’s important to note that a training session should be done separately from the board meeting to keep business moving. Training sessions should be designated on a special day where everybody can be relaxed and really spend the time that’s necessary to really review that particular area.

Recurring Items

Looking at our example again, we also see some recurring items, starting with the Strategic Plan Update. Once the Strategic Plan is approved, there should be at minimum a quarterly review and update to talk about the action items that came out of the strategic planning session and what your progress is to date. 

Generally speaking, you would have those action plans over a period of up to three years. This way it gives the organization time to adapt to changes in the plan rather than doing everything all at once. Take one at a time and work on those over the course of the year and by year three you should have the bulk of the actionable items from the Strategic Plan completed. Having the Strategic Plan as a recurring item in your Board Action Report helps keep this a priority for the board.

Another item we see under recurring items is board self assessment. The board should be doing its own self assessment at least annually through an independent facilitator. This way the board will keep improving its skills in governance and eliminate any assessment bias from the Executive Director or the Board Chair. It will identify the strengths and weaknesses of the board and put in place training initiatives that will then find their way into the Board Action Report.

Governance items 

Finally we have a section for reviewing and updating policies. Let’s say you have 12 policies that you want to review this year. You can set one up for review at each board meeting. Spreading policy reviews out like this makes it easy to review each one in detail, leading to a quality decision from the board.

A real life example of the importance of a Board Action Report

On one particular board that I was serving on, we had discussed an upcoming planning session. The board had agreed on when and where to have the session, and to use the same facilitator that we had worked with previously. 

Unfortunately, after the initial meeting the item was not tracked or followed up on. As the session date drew closer late in the year, we learned that our preferred facilitator was not going to be available due to other pre-arranged bookings. This left us scrambling to find a new facilitator that we weren’t as familiar with. The session did not go as smoothly as our previous ones and in fact it caused some frustration with the board to the point that they questioned some of the actionable items that came out of it. Sure we had a new action plan for the new year, but the board felt uncomfortable with some particular items going forward. So just by including this in a Board Action Report we could have avoided a whole lot of last minute scrambling and conflict amongst the board.

Some Best Practices

Your Board Action Report should be updated every month and it should be updated shortly following the last board meeting – ideally within a week from the last meeting so that any items that were on the minutes that need to be actioned can be included in the report. It will also be an opportunity to review some of the items that need to be brought forward to the next board meeting. This gives everybody ample opportunity to get all of the required reports and follow ups completed prior to the next board meeting.

Now let’s talk about who should have access. Although the Corporate Secretary is responsible for maintaining the document, it should be made accessible to any board member that may want to see it. Some boards have a central location or dedicated web page for all board actions and activities, and this report could be placed there for any board member to easily access and provide feedback. 

Question #1 – How do I start holding my board accountable to completion dates?

First, completion dates are usually decided upon at a board meeting. There’s going to be some easy repeatable items that you’ll breeze through pretty quickly. But when it comes to setting responsibility and holding accountability to larger items both in certain roles and as a board, you need to first understand that those larger items will take more time.

Board members are busy people and the last thing you want is for them to feel overwhelmed and withdrawn. Spreading large ticket items out over the course of several months or even a year can help greatly with getting things done on time. There will also be new items that come up during the year that will need to be prioritized, sometimes even ahead of some of these larger items. All the more reason to keep an accurate Board Action Report handy at all times.

Question #2 – I’m tracking my meeting minutes. Isn’t that enough?

Even with the most accurate minutes, in order to get a precise picture of long term progress sorting through pages and pages of meeting minutes could take you many hours. You’re also assuming that everything is actually being captured properly. Sometimes if you are just jotting things down in a notebook it’s easy to miss something that was said or a decision that might have been made. The Board Action Report is a steady snapshot that allows you to break down your progress into much more digestible pieces. 

D2 offers a variety of easy to follow, self paced courses to help run your board more effectively, including a free course on how to run your board meetings more effectively, with a written guide, more video content and even sample governing policies you can start using today to get started.

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