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What is Your Agenda?

I had the privilege of chairing Student U’s board for three years. (Student U is a Durham based organization that prepares under-resourced students for college as well as teaching students and their families how to advocate for themselves.) The ED and I realized that the agendas we created for the board meetings neither excited nor prepared members. We vowed to create a better agenda.

We spent some time pondering the purpose of agendas. The ideal agenda allows attendees to be prepared for and looking forward to the meeting. We realized the agendas we were distributing (and for that matter those we received) did not do that at all.

We agreed that agendas fall short of their purpose for at least three reasons.

The first is that they are often not timely. Agendas often come hours or a day before the meeting. (While this is generally less true of board meetings, it is true of most other--particularly intra-organization--meetings.) If folks don’t have the time to prepare, they won’t.

Second, often agenda items are cryptic. An item like “staff development” may be clear to the person who put it on the agenda but is so broad that attendees have no idea what will be discussed. Are we thinking of reworking the entire feedback system or are we concerned that we are behind in implementing the system we currently employ? If folks don’t know what will be discussed they will not be prepared.

Third, agendas rarely include recommendations about how to prepare for the item. Even if an agenda is timely and the topic is clear, it is challenging to be prepared for the meeting without some guidance about how to prepare.

Finally, it is nice to add why an item is being presented. Does the item deal with a one off that just needs a decision or is it fundamental to the mission of the organization?

To deal with these issues, the ED and I developed what we called an annotated agenda. The agenda, which was distributed ten days before the meeting, worked to address the above agenda shortfalls.

For instance the Agenda item might look like this:

Staff Development: Student U has long had a professional development support system for most of its employees but not one for leadership team members including the ED. We are starting the conversation with the assumption that PD support will benefit the team. If you disagree with that assumption, let us know before the meeting. During the discussion, we will ask board members to share their experiences with PD including utilizing an outside coach. We will then discuss the usefulness of hiring coaches for the leadership team and the fiscal ramifications of hiring coaches. Fianlly, we will vote on whether to allocate extra funds this fiscal year to initiate a program. The item reflects the strategic initiative of retaining staff. To prepare for the conversation please read the following attached article.

While writing agenda items like the above takes more time, the benefits are clearly seen in the meeting. People come to the meetings more prepared and need not process a topic from scratch at the meeting. More decisions are reached and they are more thoughtful.

Should your next meeting have an annotated agenda?


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