My husband’s a technological dinosaur – he considers the typewriter a dangerous modern invention.
He’s also a trustee of a local charity. And so, every month or so, I print out an array of documents and wish him luck for his trustees’ meeting.
I wouldn’t say it’s my favourite job.
The reports for the meeting, written by various officers, arrive in stepped batches. A few are recalled and corrected. It’s easy to be caught out with the day-before’s version.
Many contributions are un-numbered. Since dropping a particularly large collection of papers I’ve learned to add page numbers manually before handing over the bundle to my husband.
Together with a magnifying glass and highlighter pen.
Why the magnifying glass?
That’s in case I haven’t had time to save the financial documents and reformat them for easier reading. The figures are often in written in the tiniest font.
And the highlighter pen? That’s for Charles to pick out the odd nugget of information buried within the ‘walls of text’.
Does it matter? After all, no one disputes that the charity does good work. Are we just being pernickety editors?
I’d reframe the question. Why should lower standards apply to the voluntary sector than to businesses? Charities often control large budgets – here, we’re talking about a high six-figure sum.
So for all charities and voluntary organisations out there, here are my top 10 tips to help us ditch our magnifying pens and highlighters. Volunteers on the ground do a great job in giving their time for free; here’s how trustees and officers can help to prepare user-friendly meeting packs.
1. Number all pages.
2. If papers are written by different contributors, add the name of the author.
3. Make accounting spreadsheets scannable.
- Include the standard thousand comma separator to improve readability of numbers.
- If your accounting software allows it, avoid decimal places, just round them up.
- Two decimal places conveys spurious accuracy at the cost of readability. It’s the accounting equivalent of exclamation marks in text.
Here’s an illustration:
Bad Better Best
|A||No comma separator, two decimal places|
|B||Comma separator, two decimal places|
|C||Comma separator, no decimal places|
Finally, right align figures for readability (don’t centre them).
I’ve found David Targett’s Coping with Numbers useful.
4. Make it easy to print out spreadsheets. Are your pages ready to print in the correct page orientation and font size?
5. Replace generalisations (‘healthy’, ‘positive’, ‘reasonably well’) with specific numbers when commenting on financial matters. These figures might well appear elsewhere but you’ll want to make it easy for time-pressed readers by recapping on the information
6. Weed the reports. This is not the forum to discuss the coffee-making rota. Sometimes you may wish to pick one area to concentrate on, rather than trying to cover too much too thinly.
7. Agree a house style for page design – eg the font, font size, heading weights, consistency of bullet points etc, to unify the various pack elements. This becomes especially important when different contributors are involved. Add a footer with the date and author’s name.
8. Use an editorial style sheet to help avoid inconsistencies in spelling and punctuation. For example, will you use single or double quotes? Note any words that need to be capitalised, along with your preferred style for numbers (when do you use numerals instead of spelling the number) and hyphenation of words.
9. Make sure your report headings match those of the Agenda.
And finally and most importantly…
10. Edit Board papers before you circulate them. Ideally we’d all park our papers for a day or so, and then let loose the red pen.
Follow Orwell’s rule: ‘if it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out’. I’ll go into this in more detail in another post, but here are two tips in the meantime: cut padding words such as ‘very’ and use the active rather than the passive tense (as in ‘x thought’ rather than ‘it was thought’). This cuts down words and also makes your writing more direct. Good luck!