How long is your governance ‘year’?

Need for a key dates calendar

Some of the smaller associations and community groups I have worked with have no staff, so volunteer directors and committee members are charged with doing all the work involved in running the organisation. I recently assisted one such group with the establishment of a Governance Committee, and part of that exercise involved developing a key dates calendar.

They well understood that their constitution required a mid-year general meeting of members and an AGM in October or November. Some of them recognised that they had a deadline of 31 December for the lodgement of their annual return. There was no particular recognition, however, that the AGM provided an opportunity to engage members in the identification of issues requiring attention in the next version of the strategy. Likewise, the importance of identifying all key strategic initiatives for the coming year (or so) before finalising the budget had not been acknowledged.

I have previously drawn attention to the linkages between strategy and accountability mechanisms, and the way these generally fit into a planning, execution, and evaluation cycle. (See links below). This most recent client discussion however encouraged me to revisit the topic to help my clients and readers to see the patterns and cycles involved in planning over medium to long-range ‘horizons’.

Stakeholder engagement with plans and reports

In discussions with my client, the linkage between the setting of strategic goals and accountability to members, particularly by means of the annual report, was also drawn to attention. The directors who had responsibility for the annual report tended to think of it primarily as a vehicle for the publication of the annual accounts. Consequently, they were focused on meeting audit and financial standard requirements. Volunteer directors who have not read lots of annual reports from other organisations may not recognise that annual reports normally consist of two equally important sections:

  • the report to members on organisational achievements and current/emerging issues; and
  • the annual accounts

Lead times and planning factors

Allowing the volunteers who are charged with responsibility for governance activities the time required to prepare for events and completion of processes and reports is a key function of a planning calendar.

  • Sometimes the issue is one of sequencing, so that information, materials, or decisions required for a given process or obligation are available in advance.
  • Sometimes the issue is related to trigger dates or events that do not occur every year (e.g. elections or national conferences), or which arise due to contract or agreement review dates.
  • At other times, planners need to take account of the workloads expected of the volunteers responsible for multiple roles and seek to spread these out over time to avoid overload in any given year.

A suggested planner format

Planning calendars included in Board Charters or Manuals may list the regular key dates for major events, but overlook the irregular or long-cycle events. The simplest and most useful version of a key dates calendar I have used was an Excel spreadsheet with tabs for each year of the planning ‘horizon’.
Column 1 listed the months
Column 2 listed dates
Column 3 detailed tasks and events (including deadlines)
Column 4 assigned responsibility to each task or event
Column 5 was used for explanatory notes or hyperlinks to templates and/or briefing notes

In addition to regular and cyclic events, infrequent events (e.g. when a tender for audit services is next due) can be added to the relevant future year at the time a service agreement or contract commences. So, when it comes time for a more detailed operational plan and budget to be prepared for the forthcoming year, most of the key dates will already be available in the relevant year tab.

A simplified overview of a planning calendar for one financial year is provided in the matrix chart below. Depending on your legal structure and focus, you may find that you can adapt this approach to serve your needs as well.

Views of the planning cycle

A number of charts are used below to illustrate and emphasise different aspects of the planning cycle.

  1. An 18-month (6-quarter) ‘clock’ planner, prepared for a client to help them to see cyclic and sequential elements
  2. A 27-month (9-quarter) governance ‘year’ chart to highlight the up to 9 months involved in planning before each financial year, and the 6 months afterward during which audit and accountability measures are required.
  3. A Rolling Governance ‘Years’ chart (using a type of Gannt chart format) highlighting the overlap of two or three governance ‘years’ at various points in the cycle.

For your consideration

The header image above suggests that there is only one correct answer to how long a governance ‘year’ is, but readers will need to assess their own organisational obligations and cycles to determine what works best for them.

See also:

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