By Mary Morel, August 2016
The background statement in a board paper is often seen as the easiest section of a paper to write because the information is factual and historical. But when you look more closely into what’s required in a background section, it’s not as easy as it seems.
The main challenge is distinguishing between ‘need to know’ and ‘nice to know’ information:
- What background and context is essential for directors to understand the situation?
- What information is too operational and merely needs summarising or deleting?
If your organisation has two board paper templates, you may not have a mandatory background heading in a noting (information) paper, but all decision paper templates have a background section. It may have another name, such as ‘Context’.
The background section in a decision paper provides a brief overview of the context and what has happened in the past that makes a decision necessary. For example, if management was seeking approval to invest more money with an existing fund manager, the board would want to know about the track record of the existing investment.
Here are some common mistakes that writers make when writing backgrounds, and some suggestions on how to avoid these mistakes.
Making assumptions about directors’ prior knowledge of the topic
Writers forget that directors are not living and breathing information about the organisation every day and are probably on several other boards. Most directors do not keep past copies of board papers, and if organisations are using a board paper app, papers are usually removed a few months after the meeting.
To address this issue, writers need to imagine they are writing to a layperson with little prior knowledge of the topic. This does not mean giving them a detailed lecture on the topic; it means providing enough succinct information to enable them to understand the paper. Sometimes that may be as simple as explaining some of the jargon.
Providing too much information about the past
It’s very easy for writers to spend too long on historical information because it’s factual. Often they just copy and paste from elsewhere. They need to remind themselves that directors just need enough historical information to lead into the discussion that supports the recommendation.
Forgetting to mention previous papers
On the other hand, some writers forget to mention past papers. I have read papers called ‘updates’, but there’s no mention of when the board received past information. If the directors have received previous papers on a topic, they must be referenced so directors can request them if they want to read them.
Many board paper apps allow writers to hyperlink to other documents, but I would use this sparingly to avoid overloading directors with additional information. I don’t recommend including the previous paper as an attachment because many directors will feel obliged to read it again.
If there are several previous papers on a topic, a concise way of referencing them is to put them in a table, with their titles, dates and a brief description.
Providing too much contextual information in several related papers
In some organisations, common background issues such as legislative changes or economic conditions apply to several papers, but each writer provides the same information in their paper. The result is repetition, and this problem is compounded if a lot of the information is in the public arena. If the writer knows that the general context is referred to in another paper, they can reference to that paper and provide a link.
I am currently developing an online course on writing board papers. Email me if you’d like to know when it is going live.