The past two years have shown us just how essential health and human services nonprofits are to the communities they serve. To sustain your mission-driven work, now is the time to strengthen your boards of directors and reevaluate the decision-making process.
As illustrated in the groundbreaking report, “A National Imperative: Strengthening Human Services in America,” health and human service nonprofits play an irreplaceable role in enhancing health outcomes and minimizing healthcare costs, in ensuring that children are safe in supportive neighborhoods and that succeed in school, in helping older people maintain a high quality of life, in helping people with disabilities live their lives fully, in building quality, affordable housing, and in providing crucial mental health and substance abuse services.
Yet, surveys also show that their boards can be more robust.
19.5 million board members serve 1.3 million U.S. nonprofits, according to the National Council of Nonprofits. Each board averages 15 board members.
Many health and human services board members want more time to discuss key strategic issues. “We never have time to discuss the really important things,” many board members complain. If you’ve heard that too, this post is for you.
Board meetings that are guided by a consent agenda likely avoid that complaint. Consent agendas are a common practice among governing bodies. The agenda is used to streamline the decision-making process by grouping routine or non-controversial items together on an agenda. The purpose is to save time and resources by handling these items with a single vote at the start of the meeting, allowing the board to focus on more critical or contentious matters. Generally, a half hour of time from each board meeting is saved.
How do consent agendas work?
Here’s how consent board meeting agendas typically work:
- Agenda preparation: The meeting agenda is prepared by the Board secretary, clerk, or a designated individual. The agenda includes a list of items to be discussed or voted on during the meeting.
- Categorizing agenda items: Agenda items are categorized into two main groups: consent items and regular discussion items. Consent items are typically routine, non-controversial, and well-understood by the board members.
- Distribution of agenda: The agenda is distributed to board members well in advance of the meeting to allow them time to review the items, usually ten days prior to the meeting. It’s preferable to both email and mail the documents. Some boards have “Board Books,” binders where you file current and past documents to stay organized.
- Review and discussion: At the start of the meeting, the board members briefly review the consent agenda items. If any board member has questions or concerns about an item, they can request that it be moved to the regular discussion portion of the meeting.
- Approval of consent agenda: If there are no objections or requests to move items to the regular discussion portion, the board votes to approve the entire consent agenda with a single vote. Typically, these items are approved in one motion without separate discussion.
- Regular discussion: After the consent agenda is approved, the meeting proceeds to the regular discussion portion of the agenda. More complex or contentious items are discussed in detail, and individual votes are taken on each of them. The items can also provide insight into the focus of your annual board retreat weekend and the right retreat facilitator to recruit.
- Adjournment: Once all agenda items have been addressed, the meeting is adjourned.
Nonprofits should consult legal counsel to ensure their consent agenda complies with any legal or regulatory requirements. Here’s a list of what’s required in each state.
BoardSource has special guidance about consent agendas which you can read here.
What makes consent agendas so powerful?
Here’s a deeper look at the power of consent agendas:
- Time efficiency: One of the most significant advantages of consent agendas is the time they save. By bundling routine items into a single motion, organizations can focus more on substantive discussions, strategic planning, and addressing complex issues during board meetings. This efficiency is especially critical in nonprofit organizations where board members often have limited time to dedicate to volunteer service.
- Reduces meeting fatigue: Lengthy board meetings with extensive discussions on routine matters can lead to board member fatigue and disengagement. Consent agendas help keep meetings concise and productive, maintaining the interest and involvement of board members.
- Streamlines decision making: Consent agendas make it easy to approve multiple items with a single vote, which simplifies decision making and minimizes the risk of overlooking important but routine matters like approving minutes, accepting committee reports, approving updated contact information lists, or budget amendments.
- Facilitates board recruitment: Prospective board members are more likely to be attracted to an organization with an efficient board meeting structure. The use of consent agendas demonstrates that the board values their time and is focused on strategic discussions rather than bureaucratic processes.
- Promotes accountability: Consent agendas help ensure that routine tasks are consistently addressed and that nothing is unintentionally omitted. This promotes accountability and good governance within the organization.
- Encourages board development: By freeing up time for more substantial discussions, consent agendas allow the board to delve deeper into strategic planning, policy development, and programmatic matters, which are vital for growth and development.
- Fosters transparency: Even though consent agenda items are typically non-controversial, they remain part of the public record, ensuring transparency for stakeholders, members, and the public. It’s an opportunity for those interested in the organization to see the breadth of activities and decisions made by the board.
- Empowers leadership: Consent agendas empower the board chair or meeting facilitator to guide the meeting more effectively. They can focus on matters that require discussion while efficiently managing the consent items.
- Balances governance and management: Consent agendas help maintain the appropriate balance between the board’s governance role and the management responsibilities of the staff. Routine operational matters are handled efficiently, allowing the board to concentrate on its oversight, strategic duties, and long-term planning.
- Flexibility: Organizations can customize their consent agendas to suit their specific needs, adding or removing items as necessary. This adaptability allows for continuous improvement in board meeting effectiveness.
A word of caution
While consent agendas offer many advantages, it’s essential for organizations to strike the right balance. Not all matters should be placed on a consent agenda, and organizations should remain vigilant about ensuring that significant decisions receive the appropriate level of scrutiny and discussion. When used judiciously, consent agendas are a powerful tool for enhancing board efficiency and effectiveness.
Specific procedures for consent board meetings may vary between organizations. Some organizations may have strict rules about which items can be included in the consent agenda, while others may allow board members to suggest moving items to the regular discussion portion if they have any concerns.
Transparency and accountability are essential in consent agendas. Minutes should be kept to record the decisions made during the meeting, including any changes to the consent agenda and the outcomes of votes (or consensus results) on individual items. This helps ensure that the decision-making process is transparent and in accordance with the organization’s bylaws and regulations.
Health and Human Service Nonprofit Standards: A BDO Benchmarking Survey, now in its fifth year, helps industry leaders understand how their organization’s activity compares with peers. BDO’s snapshot for health and human service organizations is packed with subsector-specific insights and exclusive industry data offering concrete guidance to help HHS leaders drive their mission forward.
If you are seeking a Board self-assessment process, the legendary Simone P. Joyaux, ACFRE shared hers with us which you can use, too. Further, here are a dozen ways to keep board members engaged, interested, and actively involved drawn from nonprofit leaders interviewed by Forbes Nonprofit Council.
Think of the lavish gift you’ll give to your nonprofit by preserving the board’s time to focus on the really important issues.
Perhaps you’ll want to share this blog post with your board’s executive committee to generate discussion?
Have you used consent agendas? What challenges or success stories have you experienced in using them? Let us know your experience in the comments below.