Gerard F. Hurley, CAE, is president of Association Executive Resources Group, Gaithersburg, MD. AERG employs a spectrum of board governance guidelines and policy instruments in a “Foundation First Governance” publication series designed to assist nonprofit organizations.
Board minutes, by definition, can loom large after the fact, to which defendant organizations in discovery will attest. Unfortunately, it is all too easy for directors—fiduciaries all—to skip over the board minutes each received weeks or months earlier and, when asked at the next meeting if they “accept the minutes of the last meeting,” to suffer a brain cramp. “Okay, let’s move on,” the chair usually intones.
The precision of one’s board and committee minutes is critical to recording what actually took place, the decisions made, budgets authorized, and who has been charged to do what, when and where. That assumes there was action to report. Minutes are not to intimate otherwise, or gloss over issues considered delicate, leaving unaddressed matters which can haunt for years.
The “academy,” so to speak, is not exempt. In his book, Known and Unknown, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld observed that some (obviously secure) minutes of the National Security Council failed to state what had been decided, or even discussed, leaving participants with differing views on what had been decided and the next steps to take. Such imprecision, though possibly intended for other reasons, seems unconceivable at that assumed level of sophistication. It happens regularly in middle America.
Another NSC practice regarding minutes, according to former Secretary Rumsfeld, was to assume that a matter had been decided, simply because “no objections were voiced.” He insisted that nothing be deemed “decided” unless and until the meeting participants agreed to decide. Was silence simply a matter of “after you, Alphonse,” or was the “minutes technique” an attempt to move an agenda? The “unless we hear from you” practice employed anywhere is wide open for abuse and misunderstanding.
It can be risky to offer too little for the record, as well. I recall the comments of the Hon. William B. Chandler, III, chancellor of the Delaware Court of Chancery, to NACD’s 2004 Corporate Governance Conference, on the Disney Corporation/Michael Ovitz separation decision just rendered. It was his observation that Disney records did not support the level of due diligence it claimed when contemplating the Ovitz separation. Was it three hours, or one hour, or 15 minutes, he shrugged, rhetorically. In his September 10, 2004, decision, on page 21, he said “It is unclear from the record whether a majority of any group of [Disney] disinterested directors ever authorized the payment of Ovitz’s severance payments.”
The quality of the minutes reflects the meeting. The document is to show only the topics discussed and the actions taken, if any. It is not a verbatim record. Was the consensus agenda properly constructed to point toward known objectives so as to focus directors on a needed a decision? Were the discussions crisp and pointed, the decisions clear and repeated for all to take note? Were the draft minutes then reviewed for accuracy by the chair and other principals before distribution?
Are we not to insist on the specificity in our minutes necessary to support the record and defend our decisions. . . and no more than that?