Writing charity trustee board reports can be very time consuming and too often these are not acted upon, or sometimes even read. Here's how to ensure your trustee reports are effective, have impact and take less time to write.
It can be helpful to create a trustee board 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. You can download templates for this, from the governance questionnaire.
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Some issues need detailed consideration, or specific technical expertise, so whenever possible delegate this to a committee or lead trustee, or similar.
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 reporting 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.
Annual charity impact reports and statutory accounts can take months to prepare, but operational and monthly trustee 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.
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.
Rather than informing decision making, reports that avoid issues or are over-optimistic about fundraising, or other, forecasts undermine it. Ensure that reporting is objective and, where assumptions or estimates are made, these must be underpinned by reasonable assumptions and facts to support this. 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.
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 reports 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.
Given the available technology, why do so many organisations remain wedded to paper? The Charity Excellence dashboard tracks key metrics in every area of activity and is fully interactive.
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.
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.
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 focusses on the key issues and action being taken.
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