Using Board Thought Topics to Inspire Strategic Thinking
Planning isn’t a periodic task. It’s an on-going process. Incorporating planning into routine activities ensures non-profit board members and professional staff remain focused on trends, opportunities and challenges that will impact the non-profit’s success. One of the most effective ways to do this is to incorporate thought topics into your board meetings.
What are Thought Topics?
A thought topic is a focused discussion during a board meeting on a topic that impacts the organization in an important way. While they can range in subject matter, they are rarely followed by a vote or decision. Instead, they offer the board an opportunity to explore a topic broadly.
Thought topics can accomplish several objectives. First, they educate board members about important issues that impact the organization. Second, they encourage reflection among board members, preparing them to think strategically. Finally, they tap board knowledge and provide insight to professional staff and the executive committee.
Thought topics are often framed as questions. While the topic can be narrow or broad in scope, they must be defined specifically enough to have a substantial conversation within the allotted time.
Here are a few examples of thought topics a board might consider:
- How can we effectively engage younger volunteers to encourage loyalty?
- What affect will House Bill 123 have on our organization if it passes? And how will we mitigate any negative impacts?
- As we look out over the next ten years, what capital improvements do we need to make to our baseball fields to effectively serve older players?
How Are Thought Topics Managed?
The board chair/president and/or the CEO/executive director identifies thought topics for board discussion. Board members prepare for the discussion with advance reading materials provided in the board packet. In addition, the chair may invite a subject-matter expert to provide context. In the thought topic examples above, for example, the board chair might invite a consultant who addresses generational issues, a public affairs professional or lobbyist, or a representative from the city whose ball fields the organization uses to speak or participate.
The board chair/president facilitates the discussion. At the end of the allocated time, s/he might summarize salient points made during the conversation, or simply call the discussion to a close.
Boards use the results of thought topic discussions in different ways. In organizations with professional staff, the content of the thought topic becomes the basis of internal decisions and planning. Non-profits also use thought topics to prepare the board for strategic planning, or to keep them up to date on important issues.
However, boards can also use thought topics in conjunction with decision-making. Thoughtfully-designed thought topics can educate a board about an issue that will be the subject of a future board vote, or provide information to a subcommittee that will bring a proposal back to the board.
Tips for Managing Thought Topics
A few years ago, I had the pleasure of listening to Kimberly Harris, CEO of Puget Sound Energy, and her board’s chair, Phyllis Campbell, Chairman, Pacific Northwest, JP Chase Morgan, discuss effective board management. Both women talked about thought topics as a board best practice for both non-profit and for-profit boards. Harris, in particular, provided insight into how she uses board thought topics to tap her board’s expertise. Here is what she recommended:
- Consider your board’s makeup and skills. Leverage skills your board has that your professional staff (or executive committee) do not. For example, if your board is diverse and has expertise in human resource management, exploring diversity and inclusion initiatives might be a good way to tap their knowledge.
- Provide materials in advance. Provide board members with enough advanced reading material to understand the issue thoroughly. Be sure to learn from your previous efforts. If the conversation wasn’t robust, expand or refine the materials you send in advance of the next meeting.
- Give the board enough time for discussion. Harris recommends allocating two hours for any strategic issue. If you don’t have that much time, narrow the focus of the thought topic.
- Use a calendar to manage topics. Harris and Campbell met monthly to review strategic issues facing the organization. They looked out five years or more, and chose topics that would have significant impact on the company’s performance. Finally, they maintained a calendar of proposed topics, and updated it as new issues surfaced.
- Dynamics are key. Engage all of your board members in the conversation. Ask specific individuals for input. Reach out to board members who might feel uncomfortable with this approach. Let them know you would like their insights on specific aspects of the discussion.
Has Your Organization Used Thought Topics?
If you have, please share your best practices in the comments below. If you want to include board topics in your board meetings, please share this post with other members of your board! And, of course, you can subscribe to this blog to get a monthly summary of the articles I post.