How To Make Reports More Effective & Less Work

We need effective reporting for good decision making, but writing reports is often very time consuming and all too often these are not acted upon, or sometimes even read. And most boards meet 3 or 4 times a year for perhaps 2 to 3 hours, which is less than 12 hours a year to cover everything; that's a huge ask. Here are 12 ways in which to ensure that your reports are effective and have impact and take less time to write.

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Set the agenda

It can be helpful to create an annual Work Plan to identify standing agenda items and what specific activities the Board must undertake and when. This will help to ensure all key issues are reported on and in good time, to enable decisions to be debated and made. Use this to drive your reporting timetable and content.

Delegate the detail

Some issues need detailed consideration, or specific technical expertise, so whenever possible delegate this to a committee or lead trustee, or similar.

Head off potential problems

If someone might wish to get into the detail anyway, or the issue may be contentious, consider briefing him/her and seeking their input in advance. 

Focus on what matters

Focus on the key issues and, particularly, the action that has or will be taken, its expected impact and time scale.  Make clear what the report is for: information, discussion, recommendation or approval. Ensure any metrics are relevant and report against target. For example, if improving reserves and cash flow are key objectives, reporting should include current cash and balance sheet data compared to where you planned to be: not just the Income and Expenditure account.

Ensure reports are up-to-date and timely

Annual impact reports and statutory accounts can take months to prepare, but operational and monthly fundraising reports and management accounts should only take a couple of weeks. If these are not up-to-date, they may not reflect the current position, which may well have changed. And papers should be circulated sufficiently well in advance to give busy individuals time to read them and ask for any clarification they may need.  

Look forward, not just back

Success requires effective decision making, so don't forget leading indicators. For example, your income to date, compared to budget is easy to measure, but you can't change it. Whereas, your projected income pipeline and donor recruitment are leading indicators. These are much harder to predict, but enable you to look forward and take action to change the outcome.  Income is critical, so here's a CEF resource on how to do that well.  

Always be objective

Rather than informing decision making, reports that avoid issues or are over-optimistic about forecasts undermine it. Ensure that reporting is objective and, where assumptions or estimates are made, these must be underpinned by objective analysis and facts to support them. If it sounds to good to be true, it usually is. Ask for the presenter to explain his or her rationale for key figures and assumptions and, if a known problem suddenly disappears from reports, ask for an update.

Avoid too much information

Always quality not quantity – lots of information takes longer to prepare and read, can obscure the key data and may make it harder to keep the debate on track. If papers need to be substantial, having a short executive summary at the start summarising the key points can be useful. Where possible, relegate detailed data/financial tables etc to annexes. For standing reports, using traffic lights and trend indicators in tables can be useful.  As can reporting by exception – only providing narrative on those areas that aren’t on track. 

Exploit technology

Given the available techology, why do so many organisations remain, resolutely wedded to paper? For example, MissionBox Engagement Communities is intended to be affordable for everyone, including smaller charities and enables you to bring together all your board documentation and communications into a single, customisable and easy to use platform. No e mails, printing, shredding or delays in the post.

Ensure everyone can contribute

Always use plain English, and avoid jargon and acronyms, unless these will be understood by all. If someone doesn’t have the technical skills, or has communication challenges, explain the paper to him/her in advance, or have an experienced individual sit with him/her to help. There's some good advice here.

Say Thank You

We don’t say thank you nearly often enough and meetings are an excellent opportunity to flag up great work being done by individuals. Particularly more junior people and those in essential, but less glamorous support roles. Mention them by name and be specific about what they did.  Saying that everyone is really wonderful is an empty gesture.  Those that aren't won't have any reason to be motivated and those that are won't get the credit they deserve, which won't motivate them either. 

Sense Check.

Once your paper is ready, carry out a sense check:

·        Clarity – everyone will understand it.

·        Brevity – it's succinct with any relevant detail as attachments.

·        Relevance – it focussses on the key issues and action being taken. 

The questions are phrased brilliantly - challenging how we prioritise our management time." Ecosystems Knowledge Network

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