Blog: August 2017
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Visual and Effective Financial Reporting 

How can association volunteers and staff effectively present and discuss internal financial data to guide strategic decision-making? That’s the question Wes Tomer from Vault Consulting and Audrey Newton from Johnson Lambert LLP addressed in their session “Visual and Effective Financial Reporting” at ASAE’s 2017 Annual Meeting in Toronto, Ontario.

When discussing financials at Board of Directors meetings, it’s all too common for volunteers and staff to spend a great deal of time “in the weeds” – looking at complex financial statements and detailed transactional data that isn’t relevant to the strategic oversight of the association. These unfocused conversations don’t allow the Board to truly understand the association’s financials from a high-level nor the strategic implications that the financials may hold.

The speakers identified six key strategies to more effectively present and discuss financial information at the Board or senior staff level. Whether you are a staff member or a volunteer leader, these tips can help you more effectively communicate financial information to the Board of Directors.

#1 – Know Your Audience

Before presenting financial information, you should identify who you will be presenting it to (e.g. the Board of Directors, the broader membership, etc.) You should understand who the audience is and also what level of comfort and familiarity they have with discussing financials. You should also understand what information they need to know (the basics) and what information you know they need (more complex themes or trends).  

#2 – Tell Your Story

When presenting financial information, it’s important to tell a story that your audience will connect with. To do so, you should share the “what”, explain the “so what”, and discuss the “now what.” This means that you should share a specific financial data point, explain why it is important, and then discuss what should be done to address that point.

#3 – Simplify

As mentioned, volunteers and staff sometimes get lost in the details when it comes to financials. When telling a financial story, it’s important to remain focused, which requires you to simplify and streamline the information you are presenting.

The speakers shared that “keeping it simple doesn’t mean that you don’t have all of the details or the answers.” Rather, keeping it simple means that you are focusing the conversation on what is important at the time.

Attendees in the room shared their methods of keeping it simple:

-          Focusing financial discussion at Board meetings only on overarching themes

-          Developing a dashboard that includes key performance indicators and trends

-          Providing financial details as supporting documentation only, rather than a conversation focus

-          Creating graphics and images rather than sharing spreadsheets or data lists

-          Setting parameters for when to address certain financial issues (e.g. a change of X% or more)

Keeping it simple allows you to frame financial presentations that are focused on very specific issues, and doing so allows the Board to make decisions that drive results more quickly and effectively.

#4 – Grab Their Attention

You should lead with your main point and highlight the broad message first, instead of diving into specifics. This will set the tone for the conversation and grab the attention of the audience. This will also allow you to keep the audience engaged in a focused discussion rather than losing people to too many details. If more detailed analysis or discussion is needed, it can be done later.

#5 – Use Pictures to Enhance Impact

The goal of utilizing pictures and graphics is to “turn data into information, and information into insight” which allows association leaders to take informed action. It’s been said that a picture is worth a thousand words, and utilizing images allows the audience to focus specifically on what you are saying rather than reading and interpreting detailed reports in their own way. This yields more effective and focused meetings.

There are a variety of tools utilized to create images that communication financial information, including Microsoft Excel, Tableau, Adaptive Insights, BI 360, I-Dashboards, and custom solutions that tie into an AMS.

A common collection of images is a dashboard, which most attendees indicated they utilize in some shape or form. These dashboards are often holistic in nature – highlighting financials, member data, engagement scores, and other components.

#6 – Open Dialogue

Presentations of financial information should not be a one-way street. Rather, they should be focused conversations, carefully developed and managed using the steps detailed above.

The dialogue should include discussions about “the good, the bad, and the ugly” which allow the association to truly understand its current financial position.

At the end of financial discussions, it’s recommended that you evaluate those conversations, asking questions like “is this the right level of detail for the audience?”, and “were we able to make high-level strategic decisions?”. Doing so will ensure that the conversation was effective, and that future conversations will be just as effective, if not more.

Andrew Cronin Finn, MSc, MBA is an Executive Director at McKenna Management, Inc., an association management company based in Westford, MA. His professional interests include strategic planning, change management, and volunteer engagement.