Board Papers - What's the problem?

Board papers, what’s the problem?

Well, to put it bluntly, some board papers are very high quality and others just aren’t. So, why is there such a difference in quality between board papers, even within the same organisation? As a board member, do you have to accept it or can you actually do something about it?

The good news is you and your charity board can take some practical steps to fix this very common problem......

The Problem with Board Papers

Have you ever attended a board or committee meeting where you’re struggling to understand what (at least) one of the board papers is all about? 

In our previous blog about Board Meetings - Top Tips, we examined how to improve board meetings.  This blog looks at the problem from another angle.

You’ve read the paper.  You  (sort of) know it relates to an item on the board agenda.  But you just aren’t sure exactly what the writer wants you to do.

Is it for information purposes only?  Or is it seeking a decision?  Are the options laid out clearly? Are the risks identified?  And mitigated? How does it relate to the strategic plan?

And does the person who wrote it actually provide a recommendation or set out the next steps?

Unfortunately, board papers that lack purpose and clarity are all too common. And they can take up a lot of very valuable board time.

So why do board papers come in all different shapes and sizes?  Why are some fine-tuned and crystal clear in their purpose, while others leave you wondering what they’re all about?

Why can’t all board papers look and feel the same?

5 Reasons for Differing Types of Board Papers

There are many reasons for the differing content and quality of board papers and this is our Top 5:

  1. Sectors are different:  Charity sector boards focus on public benefit requirements; credit unions focus on  their own “common bond”; private sector boards focus on profit and shareholder value; public sector boards are concerned about government policy and value for money.  So their papers will have a different look and feel to them.
  2. Third sector organisations are different:  While they may have similarities to other organisations, each organisation is distinct and unique and that means their papers will have different purpose and content.  Charities come in all shapes and sizes and other third sector organisations like credit unions operate in different common bond areas.
  3. Boards are different:  Boards come in all different shapes and sizes.  Some aim for fixed term tenures, others have  voluntary measures.  The mix on boards differs in terms of the skills, experience and diversity of board members/trustees.  So those reading the papers have different skill sets and will seek to shape board papers to meet their preferences.
  4. Purpose of board papers is different:  Each paper is written for a specific purpose. This could be to inform the board or to make a recommendation, seeking a decision.  These papers require a different approach to meet their objective.
  5. Report writers are different: Of course board report writers are different people.  Some will be really good at writing reports. Others will dread the thought of it and struggle to put a clear structure around what they have to say.  Why is this?  Well, report writing is a skill and it often doesn’t get enough attention in organisations where it’s assumed that you should just “get on with it”.

Low Quality Board Reports

So, what is often the effect of the above reasons for differing types of board papers? Each paper looks and feels different.  They can lack focus. Each writer has his own style and structure,  There are no limits on length.  There are no checks on what must be included and often key information is left out.

The result? Low quality board papers.

The impact of low quality board reports is often underestimated.  

Here are just some of the impacts of low quality board reports:

  • take more time to read and understand, wasting the time of board members, including those in the voluntary sector who give their time for free
  • take up more time at board meetings, leading to weak decision making and even risks wrong decision making
  • sometimes have to be rewritten, delaying any proposed actions or recommendations
  • cause stress and anxiety if recommendations are not adopted due to misunderstandings  and the report writer has a lot at stake in the outputs
  • cause drift from strategic objectives if the reports are not aligned with the long-term objectives of the organisation
  • cost money if finances are not accurately calculated
  • increase risks if they are not properly identified and mitigated

A Proposed Solution to Low Quality Board Papers

So, what is the solution to low quality board papers?  How can boards and senior management improve the quality and the outputs that result from them?

Here are our 6 suggestions for your board:

  1. Develop a template for good quality board papers.  Decide exactly what should be in each and every paper e.g. Purpose; Executive Summary; Alternative Options; Income and/or Costs; Budget Implications; Risks and Mitigants; Recommendations; Alignment with Strategic Plan; Tracking Measures (e.g. KPIs); Timescales; Milestones.  You may need two or three different templates as a report that is just to provide information may need less of these headings than a report seeking approval for an action or a major spend.
  2. Train everyone on how to complete (and read) the template.  This means train all those who write the papers; all those who read the papers; all those who attend board meetings; and all those who implement any actions arising from the papers.
  3. Pilot test the new templates.  Try them out on some board papers and modify them based on any findings/feedback.  Track how long it takes to complete them and how long it takes to read them.  Check for clarity and understanding of the content and ensure that all key areas have been included for comment.
  4. Align the templates with a clear agenda.  Make sure the agenda is written with the new templates in mind i.e. at a glance telling the meeting attendees the purpose of the paper e.g. “For information”; “For decision”; “For noting” etc.
  5. Roll out the templates to all board papers.  Agree a board meeting at which all board papers will meet the new format and standard and when the agenda will be aligned with this.
  6. Review the new system periodically.  Amend and improve the templates as everyone gets used to completing them and reading them.

Summary – Board Papers

Board meetings can sometimes be long and arduous.  There is no reason why the quality of the board papers should be a reason for making them even more difficult or time consuming. 

Improving the quality of the board papers is in the best interests of those who write them, those who read them and it can lead to much better decision making for the organisation.  This in turn will lead to better impacts and is more likely to result in achieving the organisation’s long term strategy objectives. 

Corporate governance is another winner as the new standardised board papers will fit neatly with other board initiatives to assess and embed best governance practices.  In our previous blogs we looked at the Top 10 Reasons for Good Charity Governance and the high importance of Regular Governance Reviews.

You can take your first steps by taking a good look at the quality of your board papers and by agreeing with your board that developing a set of templates will materially improve decision making and the effectiveness of your organisation.

If you would like to learn more about how to develop your own improved board paper templates, drop us an email to or contact us here:

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