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Consent Agenda: Optimize Your Board's Time and Productivity

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Having served as the president of several nonprofit boards over the years, I spent many hours frustrated over ineffective or less than efficient use of the board’s time together.  As such, you can imagine my delight when I came across the concept of a consent agenda.

Typically I would draft an agenda for each board meeting. I would carefully review the obvious categories including approval of last meeting’s minutes; treasurer report; membership report; update on recent events; a review of our upcoming calendar; old business and new business. As we plowed through the reports, I noticed two interesting challenges. The first, that only the person making the report showed any complete interest in the information. Secondly our entire meeting became consumed with ‘reports,’ leaving no time for generating new ideas.     

Even with a formal parliamentarian to enforce limits on individual participation and a ‘timed’ agenda, I found that when we followed our agenda, we never consistently engaged in any kind of robust discussion on topics that were strategic rather than tactical.

The idea to use a consent agenda came from one of our board (bored!) members who noted that when routine items are addressed prior to the board meeting, it opens up time during the meeting for discussing critical key issues – the ones we often ended up tabling to the next meeting because we simply run out of time and energy.  It is clear to any observer that the longer the meeting goes the more the enthusiasm and interest wanes. To put an end to that dilemma, items considered best served by consenting in advance are dealt with separately. These could include meeting minutes and most of the reports that I mentioned as being the ones that eat up the clock. These can quickly become roadblocks, limiting the use of our time together and preventing a more productive meeting.

So what’s different about a consent agenda?

After the board votes to approve the use of a consent agenda, the chair of the board agrees to provide information to all board members before the meeting.  This includes those items that they will adopt by one straight yes/no vote under the consent portion. These can consist of reports, resolutions and/or recommendations that require no further dialogue.  Before the meeting even begins, the board chair can ask if they should move anything from the consent agenda to the traditional agenda. This may happen as a result of board members giving further thought to an idea.  They might want to have the opportunity to express their concerns, objections or support for any item.  This way, no one feels ignored or not given proper chance to fully communicate. Items that demand a deeper discussion are not placed in the consent area.  And therefore are addressed with full participation of everyone present, as with any traditional agenda.

What can the board do with the newly found free time?

With reports and approvals out of the way, the board should function in its intended manner.  They can talk about ideas for achieving short and long term goals and actions relating to the mission and vision of the organization. A more contemplative conversation can ensue once the time-consuming, predictable decisions are off the table.

Those organizations that host periodic strategic meetings or retreats can carve out a portion of every board meeting to focus on brain storming regarding different aspects of the strategic plan.  This kind of discussion is the best use of the board members’ time, resources and intellectual capital.  Yet an overloaded agenda often compromises it.  However these meetings could easily become more streamlined if the board accepted a different approach.

Tactics complete the job. While the tasks assigned to the committees address the organization’s daily needs; it is a forward thinking strategic attitude that is necessary to sustain the organization over time. Without using board meetings to encourage the leadership to ‘think’ ahead, to be creative and to be innovative, the organization may eventually stop being relevant.