Standing Beside Alaska's Non-Profits

The Foraker Group Blog

Tax reform is taking center stage in Washington. The administration and House of Representatives have released their Unified Framework for Fixing Our Broken Tax Code, which proposes maintaining tax deductions for charitable donations. On the surface this is good news, but a closer look by the National Council of Nonprofits and the international Association of Fundraising Professionals has raised significant concerns.

Don’t delay – act now. Here’s what you need to know.

According to the Council, one provision – doubling the standard deduction – would reduce the value of charitable deductions because far fewer people would be able to take advantage of them. Currently, 33% of Americans itemize when they pay their federal taxes. AFP points out that the proposed change reduces to 5% the number of people who would be eligible to itemize – that translates to a loss of 30 million itemizers.

Think of what this could mean to your organization.

We strongly encourage you to review information from the Council and AFP. Then call our delegation and let them know how this proposal would affect your ability to carry out your mission. They will care about the impact on Alaskans and our communities. AFP has developed talking points that you can use to help tell your own story.

If you have questions, please contact Mike Walsh, Foraker Vice President of Public Policy, at Below is how you reach each member of the delegation.

As we close in on winter in Alaska, each of us is doing our seasonal work of filling freezers and shelves with food, storing lawn furniture and securing our outside environment from the impending wind and snow, calculating how long until we need to switch our tires over to combat icy snow-roads, and generally realigning ourselves and our families for the season to come. We go through these motions with equal amount of routine and stress – like working out a muscle we haven’t used in a few months. It’s hard and takes effort, but it’s familiar. In this change of season, we respond accordingly.

In our nonprofit work environment, we also know this fall season. There are things we do at this time of year because our boards are back from fishing and extended weekends, and our staff is firmly planted back in the office as their children go back to school and the summer adventures are fading into memories. Now is the time to take a deep breath and get into your fall routine.

Of course, the mission didn’t take a summer vacation so it is not the daily operations that need dusting off. It’s the difficult, but predictable tasks that need our attention now.  What are the things you can prioritize each fall? Here are my 5 recommendations:

  1. Get your finances in order. For those not on a July 1 fiscal year, fall is the time for all the other groups to accomplish their final budgets to meet the October 1 or January 1 deadlines. Surprisingly there are still groups operating without an annual budget. If that is you, read this article I wrote in June about the importance of budgeting. Budgeting is critical to being financially responsible for mission and so is an annual external “look.” For mid to large budget organizations, this means that fall is typically audit season. Yep, that time of year when a collection of professionals in well pressed clothes show up in our spaces and do the critical work of helping us understand if our systems are in full working order. This is the equivalent of a good tune-up as we enter another season. Are all systems “go,” or is there room for improvement? Auditors are a true gift when they do their due diligence, and we are open to their work. For some this is a nerve wracking experience because they understand there is work to do or because they were handed a mess from a predecessor. But for all of us, the external perspective is critical to our job as mission stewards. If you are not getting the most from this experience, we recommend these questions to consider asking as you walk through the process.
    • What are the opportunities for improvements?
    • What will we do to improve our internal processes and build efficiencies? SO that… we can be better!
    • Have we done our best? If not, what needs to change?
    • Are there changes to our workflow, tracking mechanisms, or operations that will allow for more efficient and effective management/stewardship of our resources all year long – not just when we’re prepping for audit?

The goal of these questions is to move from anxiety around audit to competence and confidence throughout the year. For those of you not engaging in an audit, the lessons still apply and we still strongly suggest that you get an outsider to review your process. That can be from a trusted member of your finance committee who is not on your board, or by asking a financial firm for a review which is less in-depth and less costly but still provides an important level of feedback and oversight. Your job as board and staff is to be financially responsible to the public’s trust in you—especially when it comes to money. How will you ensure this is a valuable experience and not just the equivalent of getting caught in a snowstorm unprepared?

  1. Stoke the fire and reserve the meeting space – this time of year means it’s time to schedule a board retreat. Sure we can do these knee-deep into winter but the season starts now and you will want to make the most of it. In Alaska, when our average board members are serving on three or four boards at any given time, and then they also want a life, scheduling a board retreat is likely the most difficult part of the adventure. But oh, the rewards can be sweet. Actual space to listen and learn, to connect and grow, to strategize and plan. Having facilitated hundreds of these each season, my team and I know the gift of a thoughtful space. The time to be, what Richard Chait refers to as “generative” (source: Governance as Leadership) – when we have room in our connection with each other to ask “why” and not just “what” or “how.” The gift of “why” means we typically ask a better question about our work and connect deeper to its meaning. The gift of “why” often means our goals in our plans are more grounded and less reactionary. The gift of “why” means we are likely to use our time in equal measure to build our team and make real plans. Retreats don’t have to be fancy or expensive – sure those happen, too – but the common denominator we see more in successful retreats include these few things:
    • The board and staff leadership have a voice in the planning and defining success. Too often the CEO or board chair have very different views about what is most important – creating space up front to define success pays big dividends on engagement.
    • If it is a board retreat the majority of people at the session are board members rather than staff. Too often staff overpower the board members and either do the majority of talking or define a detailed agenda, never creating a generative space for board members.
    • Our job notwithstanding, we believe strongly in an external facilitator – even if you are an expert or even if one of your board members can do it. Having an external person facilitate your space means you and your team can focus on each other. Importantly, it also means that the board or staff member who might be the facilitator instead gets to be an equal voice in the room. If hiring an external person is not possible for any number of reasons, consider rotating roles during your retreat so you can maximize the roles and voices in the room. Each retreat agenda will look different. For many of you the topic of the day will be planning for the future either long-term or near-team, for others it will be skill-building or diving into a meaty topic that needs considerable attention and depth. Whatever is on the agenda, make sure you add a healthy dose of fun, connection, and reflection.
    • Place matters. One of the gifts of a retreat is that it isn’t in your regular room – wherever that might be. So get creative on a budget or do a once a year mini-splurge – wherever it is, remember the environment matters in how we engage .Our space sets a tone and will absolutely influence the agenda. Be thoughtful and match your space to your goals.
    • Finally, eat. Trust is often built over a shared meal. Again, you can go potluck or popcorn or catered delights. Every organization has its own culture and food is one of the ways we see that in action. The groups who take a moment or two to share some food find not only their bodies fueled for the work but their energy is renewed from the shared experience.
  2. Speaking of renewing our energy and our spirit, the fall brings us the season to focus on philanthropy. A Latin word meaning love of humankind, fall is when we gear up as organizations to renew or create healthy habits for people. I am often asked if there is a season of giving and in this regard Alaskans are no different than our friends around the country – fall is our season and our job as organizations is to be as donor focused as possible. The inside-speak of “annual giving” is externally what donors and potential donors experience as an opportunity to invest in the causes and missions they care about on a regular and consistent basis. This is a whole newsletter article or 10 in and of itself, but suffice it to say, this is our season to be implementing our donor recognition, communication, and solicitation efforts. As you plan your year-end strategies, remember to always start at home with your board before reaching out to your donors and then your potential donors. Remember as well that there is no such thing as one size fits all fundraising strategies, so success means focusing first on a clearly identified person or group of people and matching your strategies to them. This kind of approach will necessitate the need for a clear plan. If you are new to fund development planning, check out our blog on the topic or give us a call. I promise you that going slow in this season means going fast all the seasons to come.

And, for those of you preparing to welcome donors through Pick.Click.Give. starting on January 1, this is the perfect time to brush up on the latest messages and tools of the program and to fully integrate it into your overall fund development planning. Foraker is a devoted partner to the Pick.Click.Give. program at the Alaska Community Foundation and we are offering classes as an addition to the great tools you can get straight from the Pick.Click.Give. team.

While we often think of this as the season of “asking,” I invite you to consider this as a season of “thanking” as well. I have yet to meet an organization that is satisfied with their donor recognition efforts, which means most all of us could do a better job at making sure our current donors, volunteers, and team feel thanked for the gifts that they give. This step is so very important before we move into asking people to invest their time and financial resources again into mission. This coming season we will be launching a new course on donor recognition. I hope you will join us.

  1. As we contemplate the full cycle of our donor relationships, this is also the season we solidify our relationship strategies with our policy makers both nationally, statewide, and locally. With the legislative session beginning in January, and Congress moving into full swing this season, now is the time to determine your public policy priorities. For those of you traveling to DC, your tickets are likely purchased and your appointments are on the books. But there are plenty more who are new to this role and are just getting comfortable with the notion that public policy is a requirement of good mission stewardship. Whichever camp you are in, as I have said so many times before, public policy advocacy is no longer a luxury for us, but a requirement of our work. This is the time to engage our boards, staff, and volunteers in our key strategies. A few reminders that we find helpful in our own work:
    • Stay focused. In this political environment both locally and nationally there are so many areas to grab your attention. Pick a few and be powerful and clear.
    • Do your math and know the financial return and the social return on government funding at every level – not just how much you save but how much you generate as a result of your efforts. The nonprofit sector is an economic driver not a drain on the economy. Our sector is a powerful partner to government at every level. Let’s get better at telling that story.
    • Be a fantastic advisor on efficiencies and economies of scale. Pull a chair up to the policy table and offer your best suggestions. If cutting is the name of the game, be the one to offer the creative solution that actually improves lives and our communities rather than letting the sound-byte win the day. Those answers are rarely fixes and often do greater harm.
    • Remember you are part of a larger sector and a broader ecosystem. Your job is not organizational survival, it is about mission results. So focus on an abundant model rather than one of scarcity and competition. Just because you are being asked to compete doesn’t mean that is how you have to show up.

This is a short list of four, and I bet you have your own list that could add some more seasonal tasks. I would love to know what is on your mission list. I also want to share one more from my own seasonal routine that gives me the added push to do my lists.

  1. Each fall, as winter creeps down the mountains and I grab every last ray of sunshine, and my days fill with all of the regular mission work and all of the seasonal work that I just described, I remind myself that self-care is mission work. So I make sure that I have one thing in my own self-care tool box. I “have tickets.” This is the phrase we use in my family to refer to the goal of knowing what the break looks like. The tickets could be metaphorical or physical, the intention is the same – a break to renew and recharge for the next season. For me, it usually looks like a deep winter moment of cashing in my Alaska airline mileage and finding some sunshine. It could also easily mean a staycation in fuzzy slippers – the destination and the vehicle is less important than the goal of personal care. So, as we embark on this season of doing our work and our seasonal list, I invite you to add one more – get your ticket to self-care. This is the ticket to renewing your energy for the next season.

Have you seen the new Pick.Click.Give. communication toolkit? Use logos, shareable images, email signatures, postcard templates and more to promote your organization to your stakeholders and donors! You can find this great resource on the Pick.Click.Give website.

The challenges in this world today are many. They come in the form of weather disasters, war, climate change, human action, and many other causes. There are so many critical areas that call to us for action, it’s easy to understand how we can feel distressed and inadequate in the face of such overwhelming events. Today, I join you in considering how to respond in a way that helps us restore our energy, renew our faith, and strengthen our resolve to continue our critical work.

There are no magic answers to these questions. But in the midst of disasters around the world, we are hearing and seeing stories of remarkable heroism by individuals and nonprofit organizations mobilizing in unprecedented ways to support and stand up for those who have fallen. Some of these people and organizations train for these days and are ready to act, but many more of us are left to consider the immediate possibilities of what matters most, and then take action.

And when it does matter most, some of you will use words to both calm and inspire others to action – others will use personal action or organizational action to model behavior. The injustice of our past and present will motivate us, the needs of those we serve will motivate us, the rights of people and our planet will motivate us, the ethics and integrity of our work will motivate us, and the plight of our neighbor, co-worker, family, and stranger will call us to action. We cannot avoid a crisis completely, but how we choose to respond is a choice we all get to make.

So, are you ready? Are you ready to respond with a voice of stability while acknowledging urgency? Are you ready to respond with a voice of solution while acknowledging deep seated problems? Are you prepared to offer hope while acknowledging sadness and grief? How will you answer these questions for yourself and your organization? These are hard questions and likely harder to answer. That is okay, the goal is to begin to consider them today so you are prepared for tomorrow. I encourage you to join with your team – board and staff – and consider the possibilities together.

I also want to suggest one action you can take right now. Please consider donating money to one or more of the many nonprofits doing remarkable work in the face of disaster. We join with you to send our good energy and our personal donations to the flooded families and people in Houston, Bangladesh, India, Nepal, and Pakistan and those now in the path of Hurricane Irma. We are also with those enduring fire, smoke, and extreme heat in California, Oregon, Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, and Washington and the communities in Mexico devastated by the recent earthquake. We know that Alaska nonprofit staff and volunteers, rescue personnel and firefighters are on the ground in affected areas in this country. They have joined incredible local teams in each of the affected regions. Please do what you can to support their heroic work. Stay connected and informed about ways to engage and do your homework before making an investment. Remember that overhead is part of ensuring a great mission and if you want amazing people on the ground doing critical work you have to be willing to invest in them.

Thank you. I may not have a perfect answer for you today, but I am grateful for all of the work I see carried out by extraordinary people and organizations and this brings me energy and inspiration. Our team is grateful for all your efforts, both in a time of disaster and every day. Please take a moment to find your balance in this unstable time, and know we stand ready to assist your mission efforts every step of the way.

The federal judge in Texas who temporarily enjoined the Obama Administration’s Overtime Final Rule late last year ruled this week that the Final Rule is invalid because the U.S. Department of Labor exceeded its authority in setting a high salary-level test that denied exempt status to executive, administrative, and professional employees without regard to their job duties. The judge interpreted the Fair Labor Standards Act as granting the Labor Department the authority to define and limit the white-collar exemptions based primarily on the duties they perform. Because the Overtime Final Rule would have revoked the exempt status of four million workers based solely on the increase in the salary level and without regard to the work they perform, the judge invalidated the rule.

Today’s ruling in State of Nevada v. U.S. Department of Labor was expected. The main question was how the judge would rule on whether or not the Labor Department has the authority to set any salary-level test. Currently, the salary level is set in regulations at $455/week and has not been changed since 2004.

What does this mean?
The decision is exactly what the current Labor Department had sought this spring – a ruling that the Obama Overtime Final Rule (and the salary level threshold of $913/week) is invalid, but that the Department does have the power to set a salary threshold at some level. The Request for Information (RFI) published in July appears to anticipate this week’s result because many of the questions relate to how to adjust the salary-level test for inflation and what changes to the duties tests, if any, are appropriate.

As we have been advising, nonprofits need to review the RFI and submit comments to the Labor Department by the close of the public comment period on Monday, September 25. For more information, including background on current law and annotations that explain several of the questions presented in the RFI, see the National Council of Nonprofits analysis, Labor Department Reopens White-Collar Salary Exemption for Comments.

Tomorrow we mark the 97th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. While we have seen much progress in rights for women, we know work still needs to be done. At Foraker, we are committed to this work with many others like the YWCA – especially in the area of pay equity.

To add to the conversation, earlier this year we conducted research and prepared a report on pay equity in Alaska’s nonprofit sector. You can find that report here.

Please join us in celebrating our achievements and re-committing to further advancing equity in our sector and others in Alaska.

The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) has published a Request for Information (RFI) in the Federal Register seeking comments from the public about how the white-collar regulations under the Fair Labor Standards Act should be updated. The Obama Administration had sought to revise the same regulations in 2016, but that effort was blocked by a federal court late last year. Under current law, employees working in a “bona fide executive, administrative, or professional capacity” are not eligible for overtime pay.

Federal regulations determine which employees fall within those categories. In most cases, employees will be considered exempt from overtime if (1) the employee is paid on a salary basis (“salary basis test”); (2) the employee receives at least a minimum specified salary amount (“salary level test”) which is currently set at $455/week; and (3) the employee’s job primarily involves executive, administrative, or professional duties as defined by the regulations (“duties test”).

The questions posed by the Labor Department in the new Request for Information give the public the opportunity to weigh in on whether and how those tests should be changed in future DOL rulemaking. The deadline for submitting comments to the Department is September 25, 2017.

We urge all Alaska nonprofits to review the DOL request and submit your comments by the September deadline.

If you have questions please contact Foraker HR Director Rebecca Savidis at 907-743-1200, or

Chellie Skoog has been named the new Vice President of Programs for The Foraker Group. Chellie is already familiar to many Foraker Partners. She has been teaching and consulting with us since 2013. Her specialty is helping organizations better manage their financial affairs, and she’s noted for assisting nonprofits that are facing fiscal challenges.

Chellie says she is “excited to do the work that advances the health and well-being of communities around Alaska.” She calls Alaska nonprofits “unsung heroes” with staff and boards doing amazing things that frequently go unnoticed in the community.

In announcing Chellie’s appointment, Foraker President/CEO Laurie Wolf said that Chellie brings “commitment, skills, and leadership to Foraker’s mission of strengthening Alaska’s nonprofits. We are very excited about what she’s going to accomplish in her new position.”

Laurie praised Chellie for her creation of Foraker’s Indicators of Financial Crisis, a user-friendly checklist that can help an organization spot if it is headed toward serious financial problems. She said the tool, which was launched at this year’s Leadership Summit, has already helped several nonprofits avoid situations that could have resulted in financial damage.

In addition to overseeing all Foraker programs, Chellie will continue working with Partners on their financial management, business planning, and scenario planning. She will also teach classes and be available for one-on-one consulting.

Chellie says she fully embraces Foraker’s Theory of Change and the Foraker Nonprofit Sustainability Model. “I’m especially excited about new opportunities to work collaboratively with our Partners and other organizations around the state. I believe that by working together we can accomplish so much more – and often with fewer resources.”

Chellie is a graduate of the Catalyst for Nonprofit Excellence and the Foraker Certificate in Nonprofit Management programs and co-teaches the certificate’s Budget and Finance class. She helped to establish the Leadership Anchorage Alumni Council after participating in the 2014 cohort and is now a board member at The Alaska Humanities Forum. Chellie is an active member of her community. Before moving to Anchorage, she lived in Seward where she led initiatives to build the Seward Community Playground, to launch the Seward Community Foundation, an affiliate of the Alaska Community Foundation, and to raise funds to construct the Seward Community Library Museum. When not working, Chellie spends her time with her family exploring the great outdoors.

Thanks to the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust for supporting Foraker as we transition and grow. 

Join Chellie for the following upcoming sessions:

September 12
Assessing the Financial Health of Your Organization: How to Know if You are in Crisis

September 28
Financial Statements for Beginners 

October 26 – Fairbanks
Budgeting for Nonprofits
Business Planning for Nonprofits 

November 2
Ask the Expert – Money Management: Your Internal Controls


We spend a lot of time in meetings. As seen by the thousands of articles written about meetings, we all know they can be better. Well, here is one more article because, let’s face it, meetings could be better.

While all of the following ideas can be applied to all kinds of meetings, I am a true believer that it’s critical that board meetings, in particular, get as close to right as possible. Notice I don’t say perfect, since we are talking about a meeting of people and well, you get the point.

There are so many components to a great meeting, however, we have to be motivated to change, which for most of us means we need to find the urgency to make a shift. Hopefully, urgency and crisis are not the same for you, but sometimes that is also true. Urgency can surely be found in low attendance, low engagement, and low recruitment success. These issues can’t all be solved only by a good meeting, but you might be surprised how many adults will make room for environments that are joyful rather than simply a lot of work. So:

  • Step 1 – Identify your urgency.
  • Step 2 – Get agreement that time could be better spent.
  • Step 3 – Find agreement of committee chairs and (if you have staff, a staff member) to take high level minutes of committee meetings that will go in a board packet, which is sent out in advance of the board meeting. We have a template that can help take the fear out of this idea. If everyone uses the same format, it is also easier for the rest of us to skim the board packet, which would be better than what happens for most of us now.
  • Step 4 – Be willing to slightly loosen the hold of Robert’s Rules of Order on your meeting rules. Too often Robert’s Rules are so rigid that only a few who remember all the rules they learned in 10th grade civics class thrive, and everyone else hopes they just don’t blow it.

Okay, so the next step after we get some agreement that things could be better is to plan for the meetings themselves. For some of you, your preparation is monthly or quarterly, for some – hopefully few of you – preparation is weekly to create a space for the team to come together to move the mission forward. Yes forward, not backwards as most meetings are structured. How are meetings about going backwards? Well, consider that most board meetings are spent listening and nodding. I call these bobble-head boards. Your role in this board, unless you are among the very few who are talking, is to listen to committee reports or an executive update that recounts the past. This behavior is so ingrained for so many boards that it never occurs to anyone that it is a waste of important face time for the team. With the right accommodations, all board members can read an update from a committee about the topics of a committee meeting and an update from staff about what has already occurred.

Why, oh why then, do we have story hour at our board meetings? I promise you, you are not a better board member because someone reads a report you could have read yourself in preparation for the meeting. The past informs the future, so let’s read about it and move on. Imagine instead – and thankfully some of you don’t have to imagine it because you are doing it – that when it came time to hear from a committee, the chair referred to the background information in the board packet but didn’t read it, instead focused on using that information to engage in a conversation or referred to it to ask for a decision, or augmented it with additional education that enlightens future decisions. By using the time for decisions, discussion, or education, the whole board can engage at an appropriate level to move the issue or idea forward. In this model, out goes reporting on the past and in comes useful time to engage.

Speaking of engagement, here are six techniques to keep us connected as a team, and one idea just for fun that we can use while we do some critical work together.

  1. Set a real agenda. Yes, I know, some meetings still happen without agendas. Really, stop that. Life is just too full to spend time meeting for the sake of meeting. So, what is a real agenda? In my mind it has at least these pieces in it:
    • The logistics of how to join (address, phone number, webinar information, etc.).
    • Clearly stated outcomes in bullet format of why we are meeting. When we approve the agenda we are agreeing to get to those outcomes.
    • A few meaningful topics. The best topics are so compelling that no one would want to miss the meeting. Also note, we’re talking about a few – not ten in an hour or even four in an hour. Prioritize and make room for full engagement. Gold star if your topics are tied to your annual and/or strategic goals.
    • Summary at the top of the agenda of all the decisions that need to be made. We don’t want to miss one. Another option is to state the desired action you expect as a result of each agenda item.
    • Bonus points for the following:
      • Discussion leaders pre-assigned. For board meetings this should be 99% board members. This gives more people in the room a chance to lead, creates more accountability, allows the chair to listen and engage, keeps it from being a staff meeting – I could go on and on about why this can create great space.
      • Time guidelines in the agenda so we all know how much attention the item needs. Is this a 20-minute dive into discussion or a one minute no-brainer so we can move on moment? This also has the added advantage of keeping the board chair and CEO on track and able to make adjustments on the spot as needed.
      • Purpose and values reminders on the agenda to guide us in our decision.
      • A mission moment to start the meeting.
  1. Incorporate a mission moment. I certainly didn’t invent this concept, but I am a true believer. Everyone on your team has a life that pulls them in 900 directions every day. But your meeting is about mission and making decisions that have the real prospect of changing lives and our world. Mission moments are not just fluff – they set the stage for everyone in the room to get grounded to the mission and the agenda of the meeting. At their best, mission moments can also create a more level playing field for engagement. A solid mission moment has these characteristics:
    • It inspires us to think.
    • It connects us to our feelings.
    • It brings us closer to the truth.
    • It holds us together for the difficult decisions we have to make.
    • It engages everyone in the room in some concrete way.

The whole experience is 5-10 minutes at the beginning of the meeting, but in those minutes we are setting the stage for why this work matters, why the meeting matters, and why we are all in a room together. These moments can be accomplished by asking an open-ended question that everyone answers – like “what are you seeing right now in your community that impacts our work?” Or by asking everyone to tell a story of one minute or less about the last time they saw mission in action, or a core value in action since the last time you met. Or they can tell a personal story about their current connection to mission. Or they can be delivered by a guest who offers their own first-hand account of mission in action (don’t forget to prep them for success). Or you can do a “temperature check” and ask everyone for their one word about how they are feeling in the moment about the state of your mission, goals, etc. There are hundreds more variations on how to play out mission moments. Some are silly and fun, and others are serious and deep. Click here for more ideas, or share your ideas with us.

  1. Clarify whose meeting it is – board or staff. Many organizations are small with few or no staff. That means when you get to a meeting, you are a board member AND at least the equivalent of one, if not two, unpaid staff. The role we play in a meeting affects the agenda, the environment, the tone, and the results. The common refrain from this group is “we don’t have time to be strategic” or “we don’t have time to think about strategic partnerships” or “we are talking about the wrong things.” If I just described your meetings, then I have an experiment for you. Take the two-hour monthly meeting time you have set aside and divide it in two. Make Part 1 a staff meeting and Part 2 a board meeting, or vice versa. You decide if you want to be strategic first and then get tactical, or get tactical so you can clear your mind for the strategic. Just be consistent.We follow all the same rules above about agendas, but this time the topics we choose are at the right elevation for discussion. For example, board meeting agendas are at the strategic or 20,000 foot level or above, and the topics impact the whole organization and mission. They focus on the end, not the means. Staff meetings are often closer to the ground in elevation and focus primarily on the tactical approach. Of course staff can and should be strategic, but it is not what typically occurs at staff meetings. Both agendas are set to move ideas forward to completion, or at least unstuck, but at very different levels of discussion. Same people. Same time. 100% more effective. This is about setting up people for success. This is about using time well instead of just taking up time. For organizations struggling with “who does what” and board/staff boundaries, this is the petri dish for experimentation and exploration for your right answer.
  2. Rearrange the furniture. Room set-up matters. Some of us are literally meeting at the kitchen table, but a lot of us are meeting at the big formal table. You know the one – it has the chasm in the center that feels like the place you get thrown into if you say the wrong thing, or the one with the long stretch from one end to the other that keeps us from connecting. For those of you that have all of your people in one room, I urge you to consider shaking things up a little in your meeting environment because serious work needs safe spaces to germinate. There is no rule that says every conversation has to be dealt with exactly the same.For the especially meaty issues, try a little knees and shoulders. The rules are simple:
    1. Ignore your furniture.
    2. Have the discussion leader take a moment to frame the issue and state the question (from the agenda).
    3. Turn to your neighbor and connect knee-to-knee. That’s right, swivel, turn, talk. Well, ideally, pairs are listening not just talking so we can learn how each person is feeling or experiencing the issue.
    4. At the appointed moment, the chair asks the knee-pairs to join with another pair and now we are shoulder-to-shoulder. If your team isn’t big enough for this, then you can use one shoulder and create teams of three with one person in each group joining a new group. Again ask – answer – listen. When we come back into the full room – back at our table, we have all talked, we have all listened. Then we can debrief. Those who are moved to share their small group response do so, or we can do an around-the-room check-in with each group, and ask one person to report out.
      Yes, this all takes more time, but WOW the results are stunning. For starters, we get to a better result because we created a space to hear from people with all kinds of communication styles. Bonus – we send the message in multiple ways that all the voices add value regardless of role, tenure, or style. Sorry teleconference and video friends, this suggestion wasn’t very helpful for you. But it does remind us that our room environment needs to work for you, too.
  3. Get moving. Have you tried using your whole body at a meeting? Don’t be frightened, really. Again, there are no rules that say we all have to come into a room, sit down, and be still – even for those of you joining from afar. After a long day, in fact, that might be just the recipe for a great nap at a meeting. So let’s move. Note that this requires a board chair who has a firm grasp on reading a room to get the right approach at the right time. Easiest option of all – the standing conversation. Take the item on your feet or adaptive equivalent. You can combine this with option 3, or you can do a full group standing session. Not the whole meeting, just a topic. You can also play musical chairs (music not required) and encourage connection and conversation between new and seasoned board members or between board members who serve on different committees etc.With exceptional technology for those joining from afar, you can role play on any number of topics like being an ambassador, or practicing your donor acknowledgment calls, or connecting with staff in a more informal way. So many options! If you want to stay seated, get your hands or face involved. Use your hands to vote with a thumbs up, thumbs down, thumbs to the side to take an informal vote on how you are feeling about an issue. Use your face to make an exaggerated expression about how you are feeling on the topic before, during, or after the conversation. Use the expressions to decide if the topic needs more time at a committee meeting, or at another board meeting, or if you are good to go. Remember, it is your meeting – wake up your body and you wake up your mind.
  4. Create space for internal processors. Do you think out loud or in your head? Most rooms have both kinds of thinkers and yet, meetings are often designed for more talking than they are thinking. Viola – the Silent Start. Awkward? Well, only if you are a think out-loud person. Everyone else is blissfully contemplating the right words to express their opinion. This is how it works.Our agenda has a posted question. The chair asks for 1-2 minutes of silence as each person takes time to contemplate their response. When time is up the topic is open for comments. The magic of a little space is more participation and better, or at least more thoughtful discussion. The race to talk is at least postponed while everyone has the time and space they need to gather their thoughts. Again, this tool is not meant for every conversation, every time, but if it works for your team – by all means use it often. There are also variations on this theme that include writing down a one-word response or a phase on a sticky note in advance of talking, or combining it with the knees and shoulders tool. Left on its own, it can be a useful technique for the teleconference meeting which is full of awkward silences anyway.

What’s one more idea — just for fun? It’s a technique that is not in our repertoire, but I couldn’t resist sharing it with you. I have often thought that if we could tap into the secret device to make distance meetings work as effectively as in-person connection, we could all cross some imaginary finish line and go home. Well, I am still searching, but in that search I found something to make them slightly less painful, or at least to poke fun at the pain.

It’s Conference Call BINGO. Honestly I have not seen anyone play this, but it looks like fun, so give it a try. The worst thing that can happen is you bring some awareness to the most painful parts of joining a conference call and – fingers crossed – with awareness comes change. And if you don’t mind a random advertisement (that I am not endorsing) couched as a parody, watch this video called a Conference Call in Real Life. Really, the truth is funny.

Mission + People + Real Work + Fun = Engaging Meetings. Let’s commit ourselves to this equation. Our staff, our committees, and our board are counting on us. Let’s take the time to front-load the experience so that the actual meeting results in partnership and connection and gets us closer to our destination. Life is short – enjoy the meeting.

For more information – check out our class on effective meetings or give us a call.




Laurie B. Wolf, MNPL, CFRE

Join our team! Foraker is looking to fill two positions – an Administrative Assistant and a Program Director for our Pre-Development Program. The right candidates will have a passion for strengthening Alaska’s nonprofits. Check out the position descriptions to see if the job is a good fit for you or someone you know.