Many non-profit executives and directors may dread writing board reports, but it doesn’t have to be complicated.
Arnold Wong, a Fellow and National Treasurer of the Australian Computer Society understands the foundations behind effective board reporting. He discussed the basic skills required through a helpful lens in a recent webinar with Better Boards. We’ve compiled some key points here in this brief article to help you approach your board reporting with confidence.
It’s fair to say that many people don’t relish compiling reports for the board. It’s also fair to say that this formality is a critical part of your involvement as a director. Your board needs to know what’s happening with your organisation in order to do its job effectively. And you need to know how to collect, organise, secure and share the appropriate data to facilitate that. How do we ensure that the right (accurate) information gets to the right person, for the right reason, at the right time to make the right decisions?
Fortunately, this doesn’t have to be as complicated as it sounds. In fact, many of the basic skills you need for board reporting may have already been introduced to you a long time ago: in kindergarten. With a nod to the self-help book “All I Really Need To Know I Learned in Kindergarten” by Robert Fulghum, and based on Arnold Wong’s webinar, here’s an uncomplicated guide to getting board reporting right.
Basic skills that form the foundations of board reporting:
Play nicely with others
As an executive or director writing a board report on a particular topic, you are likely to have access to a lot more information than many others on that topic. The quality of the information and how you choose to use it are the most important factors in board reporting, or ‘information governance’. But, to quote a certain superhero series often loved by those in kindergarten, “With great power comes great responsibility.”
As children, we’re constantly told to share our toys with each other. When writing your board report, apply this rule to information. Holding back data about the organisation from your board only makes it harder for it to do its job. When you share what you know, you give other people the chance to exercise their skills. Don’t be selfish: Let your board in on what’s going on so they can make the right decision themselves, for the organisation.
Play fair and don’t hit people
No one likes a bully — at kindergarten or in the corporate world. Don’t try to strong-arm the board into doing what you want. Trust the board to take the facts and make the appropriate decision on its own.
Practice good hygiene
If you spent your time in pre-school finger-painting, Play-Doh-sculpting, and making mud pies, you likely heard the phrase “wash your hands” regularly. This lesson has proven useful during the COVID-19 pandemic — and it can also be applied to board reporting. Instead of keeping your hands clean, however, now is the time to practise cybersecurity hygiene: taking steps to keep your data, networks and users secure.
Here are four ways to do that, no soap required.
- Create strong passwords
Make sure sensitive information is kept locked away with secure passwords that you change regularly. If you’re still using “Password1234,” now is the time to stop! To make this easier, use software called a password manager. You log in with one password, and it generates and stores strong passwords for all your accounts as required.
- Enable multi-factor authentication
Increasingly, strong passwords are no longer enough to keep hackers out. When you’re working with the kind of sensitive data that goes into board reports, it’s becoming necessary to add multiple layers of security. This is called multi-factor authentication. You may have encountered two-factor authentication, but there are actually three types:
- (1) Something you know, e.g. a password or personal identification number (PIN)
- (2) Something you have, e.g. a code sent to your mobile or an authenticator app
- (3) Something you are, e.g. biometric data derived from facial recognition software or a fingerprint sensor.
Backup your data
Regularly backup your data using encryption: a way of storing information that requires a key to unlock it. Keep on top of any security patches released by the manufacturers and developers of the software and hardware you use.
Use a VPN in public
It’s harder to guarantee the security of your information when your users are working remotely. If people in your organisation are working from home or using public Wi-Fi, have them use a Virtual Private Network (VPN), which creates a secure path for data to travel on, protected from anyone else using the internet connection at the same time.
Think about other people
Anyone who takes care of small children knows they often struggle to break out of their own little worlds long enough to consider other people’s feelings. And adults could benefit from remembering this rule too, including when it comes to compiling board reports. When writing your report, think about what the board wants to know: It may be different from the kind of data you value. And remember, being relevant is better than rambling.
Don’t forget your S.C.A.R.F.
Develop a balanced approach on what to report. If you’re not sure about the best way to structure your report for the board’s use, try the S.C.A.R.F. method:
- Succinct: Short and relevant is much more helpful than long-winded and rambling. Only include information your board needs to know to make decisions.
- Culture: In addition to hard data, boards want to know what’s going on inside the organisation. You may need to include how many customer complaints the organisation has received, and if there have been any whistleblower reports. No board member wants to find out about an internal failure for the first time by reading about it on the news.
- Area of Risk: If something poses a threat to your company — whether it’s financial or personnel-related — your board needs to know about it. Managing risk is one of the board’s most important duties.
- Forecast: Give the board the data it needs to make predictions for the future — another important board task.
Look around (put yourself in other people’s shoes)
Perhaps the most challenging aspect of writing board reports is that you are writing it for someone else who may be interested in different issues to you. Here are four tips for writing a report that prioritises your readers’ needs.
- Be transparent: Include all the data you think the board will want, and make sure it’s accurate.
- Provide context: Give your board clear context around any data you include, so it’s clear that you’re not manipulating the results to prove a point.
- Be consistent: Don’t cherry-pick your data: Provide an appropriate range so the board can make a decision based on long-term information, rather than anomalous trends.
- Know your role: As director, you are responsible for ensuring the information you give to the board is correct. That means you can’t just send your staff out to collect the data, and copy and paste it unchecked. Read through and fact-check everything you’re sent.
Board reporting isn’t exactly child’s play. But you can get started knowing you already have the skills you need to go to the top of the class.
This article was based on a webinar with Arnold Wong, a Fellow and National Treasurer of the Australian Computer Society. Find out more about his webinar. This article is general in nature and does not constitute professional advice. Better Boards recommends that the reader contact Arnold Wong directly for more information, or seek their own professional guidance in relation to their own circumstances. For information on financial reporting to boards, check out this article.