As we head into December, many foundations are preparing for their end of year board meetings, and hoping that trustees will read and review the materials being prepared. As foundation staff assemble board books, research we conducted several years ago suggests they are likely to send their boards too much material and that much of it will go unread.
Staff do well to focus instead on the materials directly connected to topics of greatest importance to boards – which will support the important discussions that need to happen – culling out the rest.
Our research, presented in a report titled Beyond Compliance: The Trustee Viewpoint on Effective Foundation Governance, is based on survey results from 546 trustees of 53 large private and community foundations in the US, and in-depth interviews with 25 trustees. Among other things, board members were asked to indicate on a scale of 1 (“too little material”) to 7 (“too much material”) the quantity of board materials they receive. Responses to this question were categorized into three groups: “ too little material” (ratings from 1 to 3); “right amount of material” (a rating of 4) ; and “too much material” (ratings from 5 to 7).
Only 1 percent of trustees in our sample indicated that they received too little material, compared to 52 percent who said they received too much. One trustee reported, “We are sent enormous quantities of information. Seven - seven pounds a month. I weighed it once.”
It is not surprising, then, that less than half (48 percent) of trustees reported reading all materials.
Our findings suggest that if materials were more focused on key topics – and perhaps less voluminous – trustees would feel better served.
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For more about the trustee perspective on what it takes to have an effective board, see the report Beyond Compliance: The Trustee Viewpoint on Effective Foundation Governance co-authored by Phil Buchanan, Ellie Buteau, Ph.D., Sarah Di Troia, and Romero Hayman.
Ellie Buteau is Vice President – Research at the Center for Effective Philanthropy.