Ah, board meetings.
As a nonprofit executive, you understand the importance of board meetings, but you also likely struggle to make them meaningful and engaging. You spend countless hours preparing for each meeting with your staff, but you often wonder if it’s worth it. Are they listening? Is this what they want to hear? Pre-meeting jitters set in as you prepare the agenda and materials.
Nonprofit financial presentations are often the most anxiety-producing, especially if there are big initiatives afoot or if you feel your board is disengaged in financial matters. You want and need their input. You want them to know that you have the finances of the organization under control. But how can you wow with such “boring” numeric data to present?
Here are four tips to help you have more meaningful money conversations at board meetings. We’ve also included a level-up pro tip for each of these in case you’re feeling like a finance superhero:
1. Know what financial information matters to your board.
Understanding what financial data is important to your board may sound obvious, but this easy win is often overlooked. Have you had a conversation with your board chair or treasurer to discover what key information they’d like to see presented each meeting? What do they feel is critical information to share?
If you feel strongly about presenting a particular data set for finance (cash flow analysis, program efficiency ratios, days of cash on hand), have you asked the board leadership if it resonates or makes sense to them? This dialogue is especially critical if your finance presentations are met with crickets in the board room. Why are people silent? Why aren’t they engaged with the data presented? You cannot meet (or exceed!) expectations at board meetings if you’re in the dark about what information matters to the folks in the room.
Level-Up: Do an annual anonymous board survey to find out if the board is actually absorbing the financial data presented and measure the effectiveness of any changes you make. Craft it with the help of board leadership to ensure you’re looking at both board member behavior and the way the data is presented. Ask questions like: Do you read the financial statements? Do you think they are useful? What could we do to improve your understanding of our organization’s finances? On a scale of 1 to 10, how are we doing engaging you in the topic of finance?
2. Use a dashboard style presentation
Once you know what information will engage your board in conversation, the next step is to present the data in a meaningful way. Nonprofit thought leaders have been touting the value of storytelling as a fundraising tool for the last decade, but have you ever considered storytelling as a financial tool?
Let’s be honest: no one (except your accountant) really gets anything from looking at standard financial statements. Most people just skim them. (If you’re lucky.) And since the human attention span is now shorter than a goldfish’s at 8.25 seconds, it’s a struggle to present financials that pique interest. That’s where dashboards change the game.
For-profit companies have been using dashboards for decades to visually communicate important data. Your accounting software may even have some “canned” visual reports to assist with dashboard presentation. If not, you can export data into Excel and turn the data into compelling visuals.
Dashboards are used to provide broad overview snapshots, revealing the big picture in an extremely consumable manner.
Want to show how your signature annual event did compared to the prior year? Try something like this:
If your board wants to know how much of your current liquid assets are spoken for by restricted funds and current accounts payable to get a handle on how many months of cash you have, try a dashboard like this to accompany your balance sheet:
The charts above are not conversation stoppers – they are conversation starters. Imagine what discussions a dashboard could evoke at your next meeting.
Level-Up: Use a presentation software like PowerPoint or Prezi to create a video with recorded narration of each dashboard slide and insert snippets from your key program or fundraising initiatives. Photos or videos of your program at work move the soul. Remember: your board should be inspired at every possible moment. Leverage dashboards to remind them why they care!
3. Be prepared to answer your board’s FAQs
Every board has a few people who always ask the same. Exact. Questions. Especially during finance discussions. So don’t dread it – get ahead of it!
Think back to your last three board meetings and make a list of the most frequently asked questions. Then make notes for yourself on the answers. The less time you spend talking about FAQs (usually asked by the same people), the more time you’ll free up for others to ask/comment on new and different topics.
Level-Up: Create a 1-pager attachment to your financials with answers to FAQs clearly stated. Or if using a dashboard, create a slide to do the same. During the meeting, refer your board to that slide or 1-pager as you answer and eventually you’ll train them to stop asking those questions.
4. Respond to financial concerns before the next board meeting
Savvy nonprofit executives understand that a key component of a successful board meeting is to make sure that there are no surprises. This is critical when it comes to financial conversations, especially if you’re aware of specific board concerns.
Whether you plan to discuss situation-normal financials or give an update on less-than-stellar fundraising campaign results, board members should always know what’s coming. Phone calls or meetings with your key board members (i.e. the loudest voices in the room, the leadership, your closest board relationships) before the meeting help to get everyone on the same page.
These one-on-ones also afford you the opportunity to plan your answers to concerns before the meeting. Wouldn’t it be nice not to have to scramble for an answer to a tough question raised at the meeting? This is how you proactively manage that dynamic.
Every board is unique, but these four tips will help you engage, impress, and proactively manage your board in the area of finance. Yes, it will take some additional effort and staff time. But it will be worth it if the result is a less stressful meeting for you AND a more thoughtful, effective finance discussion with your governing team.