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Why I don’t like purpose statements in board papers

Purpose Green Road Sign with dramatic clouds and sky.

By Mary Morel | 16 November 2015

I am not a fan of purpose statements in board papers because they are unnecessary and cover information that is not strictly speaking a purpose.

With a noting (information) paper, it is obvious the purpose of the paper is to inform. With a decision paper, the directors know that an approval is being sought and they learn what the writer wants in the recommendation (sometimes called draft resolution).

The cleanest templates have no purpose statements, but when templates do have a compulsory purpose statement, it is a section that writers use poorly and inconsistently. This is partly because there is no universal agreement about what a purpose statement is.

I have seen the following four uses of purpose statements – often within the same board pack.

1. The purpose mirrors the recommendation
This is the conventional use of the purpose statement that was used when the common convention in board papers was to have a purpose at the beginning and a recommendation at the end. This was problematic because writers seldom checked to make sure they were stating the same information in both places. Sometimes key information would be stated in the purpose and omitted from the recommendation. Occasionally, the purpose and recommendation would contradict each other.

Increasingly today, recommendations are the top of a board paper, which makes this type of purpose statement redundant. However, it is still sometimes retained.

Purpose: To seek approval for a five-year contract for X for $Y.

Recommendation: That the Board approve a five-year contract for X for $Y.

2. The purpose statement gives the reason for the board paper
Some organisations use the purpose statement for writers to state why the paper is going to the board.

For instance, it may be a regulatory requirement that the directors view a policy, or a reminder to the directors that they requested an update on a topic. The rationale in one organisation I worked for was that papers were going to the board unnecessarily and the purpose statement’s aim was to make writers re-assess the need for a board paper.

If that is the rationale for the purpose statement, maybe the wording should be more specific, for example, ‘Why the board is receiving this paper’. In practice, I have seldom seen this type of purpose statement used well. Maybe the decision about whether a board paper is necessary should be made before the template is reached for.

3. The purpose statement provides a summary of the paper
Some organisation’s guidelines include the following advice on how to write a purpose statement: ‘Write a brief summary of the key points to be covered in the paper.’ If that’s what the writer is expected to do, why not rename the purpose statement ‘summary’ or ‘key points’?

4. The purpose statement contextualises the paper
I have even seen purpose statements used to provide some background information about the topic or the recommendation. That may be useful, but is it a purpose statement? Such information fits more logically under a section called ‘Background’.

My suggestion: Scrap purpose statements and use more specific headings that writers understand and will use better.

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