From Recording Secretary to Board Documentarian

M.I.S. PerceptionWe humans are such funny creatures. It is amazing how often an opportunity is staring us right in the face and we don’t even see it.

That’s what happened as I began following up on an action item from Creating the Future’s last board meeting. The board had discussed the need for a recording secretary who could take notes and post our minutes. We talked briefly about seeing if we could find a volunteer for the position of Recording Secretary.

And here’s what struck me this weekend: That is how we think in this sector! Whether your organization is a traditional “nonprofit” or a social enterprise, we think about volunteers. We think about tasks. We think about “seeing if we can get someone to do X.”

“NO NO NO!” I shouted to myself, alone in the office. And then, “You silly girl!”

Because here is what I realized:

Creating the Future’s board is working to re-invent governance as leadership, to explore what that means in practice. The board is a living governance laboratory, taking each meeting as the opportunity to try on new ways of being leaders of this nascent organization.

Every decision of the board is being made by engaging publicly, gathering comments and ideas, exploring broadly with anyone who wants to participate. Mundane issues like a conflict of interest policy become fuel for the types of online global discussion that, frankly, I’ve never participated in before – with ideas being suggested that raise the bar for all of us.

And in all that, the board has chosen to openly act as a demonstration project. In a post later this week, I will be asking for thoughts about having our meetings be streamed live. At the very least, our minutes are posted. As we learn, what good is it if we keep that learning to ourselves?

Then here’s where that all came together for me: Some lucky person is going to have the opportunity to sit in on that firsthand. To be more than the fly on the wall – to be part of the action!

That’s the “job” we titled “Recording Secretary” – the job for which we wondered, “Can we find a volunteer?”

Oh my, how often we all do this! We think of finding someone who will do something for us, rather than someone who wants to partner with us to create something that is so much bigger than the sum of the parts. This is not a mundane drudgery that we (Creating the Future) must hope and pray someone (a volunteer) is willing to suffer through on our (Creating the Future’s) behalf.

It is instead an amazing opportunity to learn together, to be part of the process, to help document that process in a way that engages others to want to engage even more, in the broadest possible sense – to build something together that none of us can do on our own!

Board Documentarian
As we start to explore and eventually promote this opportunity, we will obviously need to be clear about all of our mutual expectations. I’m hoping you all will help by adding to this list.

Creating the Future’s Wish List
• Someone who is knowledgeable about boards and governance, who is excited to be part of this emerging governance practice

• Logistics: We will train in the thought framework the board uses for its discussions, to ensure the minutes reflect that context and path

• Logistics: Attend each meeting (virtually); take notes during the meeting (once the meetings are recorded, this will be less important); shape those notes into key points, gathering stray threads into a coherent distillation of the discussion; post minutes to the website.

• Logistics: We would probably want someone to be willing to commit to a full year with us, after which we would also probably want their help in crafting the job description for the next person!

• What else? _______________________________

Documentarian’s Wish List
• Immersion in 2 hours/month of in-depth thinking and exploration, watching cutting edge governance theory being made practical

• Exposure to new ideas for your own work in the governance arena

• What else? _______________________________

So what else comes to mind on either of those lists? (And if you’re interested, please let me know privately!)

And I guess lastly, what tasks are YOU hoping to find help with, where you may be overlooking the opportunity hiding within the mundane?

13 thoughts on “From Recording Secretary to Board Documentarian”

  1. Exciting concept! My pragmatism takes over, as I see some aspects missing. The documentarian must also do more than handle minutes. Policies and votes must be recorded in some easily accessed and indexed way for future reference. Then the documentarian should also have the job of accessing the ‘institutional memory,’ i.e., all prior votes, discussions, policies and decisions, to ensure the board doesn’t reinvent the wheel at a later time.

    In return, the documentarian will also want to have a rapidly responsive board, so questions are quickly answered prior to posting notes. To be given suitable tools for doing the job of documentarian, whether that’s a database in which prior notes, policies and decisions are maintained, or some other method.

    All of these are necessary to ensure not only transparency, but also accountability. In order to determine whether your organization is doing what it says it wants to do, you have to be able to find what it says it wants to do, and what it says about how it will do it.

  2. Susan:
    I love those ideas! It leads me to consider what the role really has the potential to accomplish in the world.

    It’s easy to see what the role makes possible for the organization – making sure we are walking our own talk of engagement by posting minutes and other items. What is less apparent, though – and more exciting – is what this role makes possible outside the organization!

    The first answer that comes to mind is that the role would ensure that the deepest, most meaningful engagement is possible between the board and all the rest of the world. And what does THAT make possible? Accomplishing Creating the Future’s mission – that the expected norm for results of community benefit organizations is that communities experience visionary improvement.

    If that spirit of deep, authentic engagement were the norm in this sector, many of the items you have noted so easily fall into place as pre-conditions to that result. That level of engagement couldn’t happen unless people had information that is more easy to access than simply going through months (years?) worth of minutes. People would need to be able to follow a “story” from the beginning (i.e. first discussion) through to conclusion (action and results).

    Engagement requires all of that and then some. And I can’t thank you enough for bringing to this discussion a whole aspect we simply had not thought about!

    • Hildy, consider also what this does for the employees of the organization. When employees…and volunteers…see the transparency and passion of the board, they are also inspired to act transparently. In turn, your beneficiaries have more confident in the organization. Finally, you attract more engaged board members because they can see how you operate BEFORE they commit.

  3. I’ve also found it helpful for the person in this role to have an Archivist mentality – ensure a full set of records is safely maintained.

    Love the idea of letting a governance wonk be a fly on the wall as a new form of governance emerges

    • Jane – your words “archivist mentality” strikes such a chord that I said it aloud several times after reading. Thank you for that!

  4. Just a couple of observations – I get in trouble with these – so I need to keep my mouth shut. But, any way:

    if you are building a board of leaders – then I am sure you are not attempting to subject any of them to tedious chores just a keeping the minutes – which if just for legal purposes should be very skimpy

    I agree with keeping tracks of important documentation such as policies and leases etc.

    But, this points out two roles for the board – one legal and the other governance. The legal fit into the management role of the board (not my cup of tea) while the governance fits into the leadership role of the board.

    When boards ask me for guidance in defining the roles of president, vice president, etc., I try to stress to them that those roles are secondary to being strategic. It is often an escape outlet for those who are unwilling or unable to accept a true governance role.

    I have a diagnostic tool that I use with my boards to help them with the non-legal, and management issues of the board. I will share it with you through email since i can’t do so here.

    Please don’t think any of this is meant to be critical as I have a high regard for you.

    Thanks –

    • Alonzo – first, there is nothing you wrote that could possibly be taken as critical – and even if it were, critical is ok! 🙂

      So much of what this board is doing is busting free of old paradigms, experimenting, trying things on and sharing all of that openly, to move the whole field of governance forward for all boards, not just ours. We have all experienced the ineffectiveness of autocratic decision-making, and we have all seen toe-in-the-water efforts to go “out to” the community with a survey or etc., as if the community is “out there” and we, the organization / board are “in here.”

      What we are looking at is a different way of being – as a board, yes, but also how that ripples (as Susan noted) throughout the organization, and more importantly out into the world. To be effective at creating a healthier, more humane future for our world, every effort of every organization has the opportunity to open minds and hearts – to create a world that is compassionate and understanding by being that openness themselves, right now.

      We have no idea what that will end up looking like for our board – which yes, we are obviously aware is a legal entity but also (as you noted) more importantly serves as a guiding beacon.

      What we DO know is that it will involve deep engagement in every issue – just like we are seeing here. AND we know, as Susan noted in her first comment, that to be engaged in any meaningful way, that people will need to have information.

      How does that protect / fail to do so from a strict interpretation of fiduciary and legal constructs? We’re blessed to have a brilliant (and somewhat adventurous) attorney by our side for this journey.

      But the sense of our board is that this grand experiment is worth documenting more fully than perfunctory minutes allow. It moves even beyond the spirit of the archivist – to use Jane’s wonderful word – and beyond the spirit Otto notes below, that whoever writes the minutes will be writing history.

      It is instead that in part, the minutes have the potential to be an open letter to the world, an invitation to join the conversation. That’s a concept I had thought but not articulated before, so thank you for that, Alonzo!

      Long and rambling – you sure got me thinking! (And again, don’t ever apologize for that!!)

  5. “Whoever writes the minutes,” someone once told me, “writes the organization’s history.” A key trait of a good recording secretary is that they know how to use their words to translate/interpret actual board proceedings, which can be misguided and messy, into action that for posterity’s sake appears to be strategic, well-thought-out, and always in the best interest of the organization.

    • Otto –
      I love the quote! It also has me thinking (per my response to Alonzo above) that that person is not only writing the history, but inviting people to join in the conversation in the present. Their framing will be a huge part of the engagement process in the present – a big part of creating that history, not just documenting it. Thanks for that!!

  6. Recording history can be mistakenly perceived as a responsibility that is inherently neutral and objective. Both the recorder and reader frequently leap to this conclusion. Recording secretaries have their own history, slants, language, attention spans, etc. that influence what and how is recorded. Or think of minutes of board meetings, that you participate in, when the minutes make it appear like only one or two people ever speak up–and you know it to be otherwise. In addition to compromising a balanced approach of what should be recording, board members do get discouraged when they continously see only certain members getting mentioned in the board minutes.

  7. Ralph made number of good points. I can’t count the number of times that I’ve looked at minutes and wondered why such and such discussion did not get mentioned; or why didn’t Helen’s idea get recorded. At other times, boards have had the opportunity to supplement the minutes and make additions.

    The recording-secretary has to have something of the historian in his or her mentality, especially in an organization such as a church. Please don’t get annoyed at this next comment, but I suspect that with fewer and fewer women getting secretarial training in high school, the numbers of people who are qualified in the mechanical aspects of note-taking, etc. are fewer and fewer each year. Perhaps one answer is to use a recording device: keep the tape or disc for the historical record, and transcribe on to paper that which flows with the agenda of the meeting.

  8. Ralph and David:
    I’m just writing up the draft of the job description, and finding your comments here – they are so helpful. Thank you for adding them. I will let you all know when the job description is posted, for additional thoughts. Thanks so much!


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