Standing Beside Alaska's Non-Profits

The Foraker Group Blog

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

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