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DEEP DIVE: TOP TIPS - HOW TO READ BOARD PAPERS

Ria Patel

11 June 2021

A few months ago, I started a research series called ‘Deep Dive’, in order to learn more about different areas of young trusteeship, and sharing my findings with current and aspiring young trustees.

The first topic was ‘How to Read Board Papers’; so, I started off with some exploratory research myself and wrote a blog, which you can read here. Following this, the learning group and I met up to have a discussion. If you haven’t listened to the podcast, you can find it here! It discusses the worries people have, tips for reading and understanding board papers and how to discuss them. This is the final blog on the topic: ‘How to Read Board Papers’! It is to summarise what I have learned through research on reading board papers, and from the discussion with people in the learning group.

OUR TOP 5 TIPS ON HOW TO READ A BOARD PAPER:

1. Understand the overall topic of the board paper

Understanding the aim of the paper will help you to dissect the meaning from it and help you to tie your individual thoughts to the overall conclusion and points of the paper. For example, understanding that a section is about finance, will prime you to start thinking about financial matters. This will make it easier to understand the content and analyse the information.

2. Introspect and use this to understand and read the paper

How do you process information? Are the board papers accessible to you? By understanding the answers to these questions, it will allow you to know what format the papers need to be in to understand and engage with them. For example, Mike brought up in the podcast that his board can send papers in a specified format, which works for software individuals use.

Read board papers before the meeting

This might be obvious, but actually reading it is the first step! Bad preparation can often be noticed by other board members, and can be quite frustrating, potentially lengthening the board meeting unnecessarily. There are many reading techniques, but one involves reading the first line of the paragraph, followed by the last line, and then reading it through. This can help you to gain a better understanding of the paper. Remember to take your time when reading the papers. Often it can seem overwhelming to read it all in one go, or it can be hard to motivate yourself. So, chip away at it slowly, if this method works for you, as a little bit every day, can go a long way.

Highlight important points

Have a highlighter and pen next to you to highlight important information and jot down your thoughts, ideas and questions. Sticky notes may also be a helpful tool. This will help you to identify where you can comment, too. Remember you do not have to comment on all points - but rather where your skills and knowledge can make valuable contributions to the board. Don’t forget to bring these notes with you to the meeting as they help to create an updated agenda to include points you want to discuss.

3. Collectively as a board, come up with a list of definitions for commonly used jargon, or find one that already exists, and circulate it

This will ensure that everyone is on the same page, especially if your charity focuses on an area with lots of specialised terminology. Understanding jargon can help you to read board papers in a more time-effective manner too.

4. Look at previous board papers

Looking at previous board papers may help you to understand the layout and structure of this specific paper. For example, your charity may have standard reporting styles they use and understanding this could help ground you and help you to become familiar with this style of writing.

5. The board meeting is not the only time you can talk about the agenda points

You can also discuss agenda points outside of the boardroom, especially if you need clarification on an item or if the comments you want to raise are only important for one person. In advance of the meeting, you could give them a phone call or send an email. The importance of having a good chair also comes in here, to ensure matters discussed are relevant to avoid the meeting overrunning.

USEFUL LINKS:

Jargon busters:

Other resources:

FYI: Governance policies are different for NI and Scotland, than for England and Wales. In this series, due to capacity, I will only be able to focus on England and Wales

Next week we’ll be discussing finance so stay tuned!

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