Issue Filtering: Identifying Issues that Merit Board Attention

By Mark Engle, DM, FASAE, CAE

Colleagues at business meeting in conference room

We studied seven associations identified with high performing boards on the question of how they filtered in and out potential issues to come before the board. In preparing for board meetings, our respondents (Board Chairs and CEOs of the seven organizations) reported that CEOs would solicit potential agenda items from board members, committee or council chairs, and staff. Often these issues were identified in an informal environmental scanning process by leaders to identify emerging trends, challenges, or opportunities confronting (or potentially confronting) the profession. Thereafter, CEOs used seven criteria to filter the issues and determine which to bring before the board and which to filter out. Some boards filtered issues electronically before board meetings.

Filtering of issues identified in this initial screening process, either manually or electronically, was generally based on meeting one or more of the seven criteria identified by the interviewees and as indicated below in Figure 1. The first criterion assessed whether an issue was strategic or operational, i.e. was the issue of strategic importance or was it more of an implementation or tactical move? If the issue was not strategic, it was filtered out, likely handled in another manner, and not brought before the board. The second criterion involved assessing whether the issue fit with the organization’s strategic plan; the filter was used to determine whether the issue was on mission. If the issue did not fit with the mission, again, it was filtered out. The third criterion dealt with the implications of the issue; the potential consequences. Did the issue significantly affect the profession or association image-wise, or in terms of purpose?  Were there significant potential consequences for not taking a position on an issue? The fourth criterion involved asking, “Was the issue precedent setting, taking us into new territory, or was it within the realm of our work at hand? The fifth criterion addressed the potential for failure or risk level of the issue; for instance, condensing the number of member categories at the risk of upsetting ‘past illustrious leaders’ or taking a stand on a controversial issue not specific to the association but important to society in general. The sixth criterion looked at whether the issue was course setting or course changing.  Will engaging in this issue impact our strategies and allocation of resources?  The final filter addressed the issue of magnitude.  For instance, a $20,000 expenditure of a $2 million budget is 1% of the budget.  Is there a threshold for board discussion around a financial impact?

Figure 1: Issue Filtering

There was consensus among interviewees about the criteria they used to determine which issues should be brought before the board. Some issues bypassed the filtering process when boards were engaged in formal environmental scanning as a component of a board meeting. In addition, some issues filtered out by staff became reintroduced during board meetings by board members. Also, during board deliberations sometimes it was determined that an issue should not be given further consideration, thus filtering it out.

The ideas of frequency and uncertainty of an issue were generally handled by policy as opposed to consuming valuable board time. Rather, the criteria that enabled these high-performing boards to choose particularly bold issues for consuming board member attention proved to be central to the organization’s future and the chances for reaching a successful conclusion.

Issue Allocation

Once the CEO filtered the issues, the surviving issues were allocated into four categories. These categories (not arranged in any particular order) comprised the agenda items for board meetings as depicted in Figure 2. The first category included reports and updates. These issues were usually managed by a consent agenda and included routine updates and reports. These issues did not require decisions or discussion. The second category included board-obligated issues (Fiduciary), such as financial reports, approving minutes, and confirming appointments. Again, these issues merited little board attention and were formalities or required items for the board.


Figure 2: Issue Management: Board Agenda

CEOs placed big decision issues in the remaining categories—environmental scanning (a.k.a. Generative Session discussions) and strategic discussion and seeking decisions.

Issues in the third category—strategic— were generally seeking a decision or action by the board; these issues had been sufficiently explored by the board members (or work group/task force) with a recommendation or significant discussion to take action. These issues were seldom driven by crises. Respondents indicated that, in general, crisis issues go unfiltered and straight to the board or Executive Committee for discussion. Sometimes issues in this category were contentious and had not achieved a clear consensus among those discussing the issue. Some of the “seeking decision” issues required revisiting the strategic plan or corporate objectives of the organization to continue toward meeting goals or objectives. Sometimes these were issues that challenged the strategic objectives or core of the association or profession, such as issues affecting the licensure of a profession.

Issues placed in the generative category were characterized as unframed, loosely framed, and trend seeking (issues that have gained momentum); they were not yet fleshed out; rather, they were issues that were just starting to percolate. Sometimes staff members, chairs, or board members would use this as an opportunity to establish a direction rather than a decision. Generally, these discussions were broader and less formal.

Contact:  Mike Norbut, Vice President Business Development (


About the Author

Mark is the owner of Association Management Center. Participating in more than 300 board meetings and serving on six Boards of Directors translates to Mark’s in-depth knowledge of board membership and governance. Through his hard work and dedication, Mark earned Association Forum's Samuel Shapiro Award for Outstanding CEO and was inducted into Chicago Area Entrepreneurship Hall of Fame and the Metal Construction Hall of Fame.

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