Standing Beside Alaska's Non-Profits

Meetings, Meetings, and More Meetings

While I was at United Way my staff threatened an intervention to restrict my meeting habit. I was literally going and coming from meetings from dawn to dusk, eight days a week! What were they to do? Send me to another meeting of “Meetings Anonymous?” I am not alone. Most nonprofit board and staff members meet too much. John Van Hengel, the founder of First Harvest, America’s food banking initiative, said something like, “I was hungry and you held a meeting. I was naked and you established a task force. I was homeless and you found a place to meet and work on the problem.”

That quote has stayed with me for over thirty years. I ponder the sanity of those of us in the nonprofit world that meet all the time. At Foraker we have worked with every nonprofit sub-sector and have discovered some unique characteristics of each of these sub sectors; especially their meeting habits. We have found that organizations with a board or staff rooted in academia, conservation or fishing seem to meet the most, talk and talk, and therefore possibly conduct the longest meetings. These folks are especially passionate, knowledgeable and determined to share what they know with everyone – all the time. But the truth of the matter is that in the nonprofit sector we all meet too much.

Of course we need to meet. Meetings are the way we work collectively to make decisions. And in most cases, group decision-making, while cumbersome, addresses more potential risks and provides more options. Therefore, while meetings are useful, we may want to re-think how much time we devote to them.

Some meetings are prescribed, like board meetings. Our bylaws tell us how often the board meets. Years ago the norm was monthly, but it seems the trend toward less frequent meeting continues. (Progress?) Research on effective nonprofits finds that an effective board is the best indicator of success. Since boards are mandated to “speak with one voice” and serve as a deliberative body, meetings are essential. We have a class on effective board meetings. We will share some of the highpoints of that class for all meetings – along with a few that are specifically for effective board meetings.

In addition to board meetings we have committee meetings, meetings with our staff, meetings with service partners, meetings with funders, and meetings with whoever shows up. Most of these meetings are important. But could we start to restrict the number of meetings we hold, or at least minimize the time it takes to hold them? I hope the answer is “yes.”

Dr. Richard Chait of the Kennedy School at Harvard encourages nonprofit boards to not have too many committees. He found that many nonprofits have too many committees. This occurs most often because of poorly planned bylaws that establish a plethora of “standing committees.” He observes that most nonprofits have too many committees to effectively manage. A more rational strategy is to have as few standing committees as possible – no fewer than finance and board development committees – but not many more. And he suggests that when we establish more committees, we should only create ad hoc committees or task forces with time limited service based on the year’s priorities. Limiting the number of board-designated committees is the most effective way to control meetings.

Reducing the number of meetings is one strategy, but another is to make sure important meetings are efficient – wasting as little time as possible. Many think that the secret to an effective meeting is in a good agenda. Well, if your definition of an agenda is clarity on the purpose and outcomes for a meeting, you would be right. However, if you think agenda means listing a sequential series of events, then you may be missing the point.

Meeting planners stress the most important part of an effective meeting is clearly understood outcomes. If you have nothing to accomplish in a meeting except to meet, then why meet? Or if you must meet, then keep the time you meet in proportion to the number of outcomes expected – in other words, keep a meeting with no outcomes short. The most important tactic is to structure the meeting to allow people to talk to each other and spend less time listening to reports.

The number of outcomes per meeting is determined by the time people expect to meet. If participants expect to meet for an hour, then one or two outcomes will more than fill that time. If you are meeting for a day, then you may be able to address four to five outcomes. The idea here is to try to anticipate how much discussion is needed to reach a conclusion so the outcome is achieved.

When people meet, they want to make something happen. When we accomplish what we plan for, it reinforces participation. The inverse is that if we meet and accomplish nothing, participants will not want to meet. Effective meetings based on outcomes achieve the intended outcomes. It is also critical to not try to accomplish too much. Engaging people on your board, a committee or on staff is that simple, and that hard.

In addition to meeting outcomes, some of the other best practices we encourage in our class for board meetings include the use of a consent agenda. Items that do not require much discussion should be addressed in as little time as possible. A consent agenda is useful when members agree before the meeting that an issue really needs little discussion, therefore they agree (consent) to determine the outcome of those issues quickly. Consent agendas save time for more important things like talking to each other.

Another practice is to review the organization’s performance by using dashboards or other simple and informative documents where complex information can be shared and understood with little discussion. Every nonprofit board and CEO should agree upon what should be measured to monitor success. They should also agree upon how often benchmarks are measured and how to interpret what they measure. Once agreement is achieved, they should develop a dashboard with those indicators. The process to determine what and how to measure and then the development of a dashboard can take time up front, but can save time in the long run. It helps busy people when they gather for a meeting and need quality information for discussions and good decisions.

Another technique to maximize the use of time is to bullet all reports, including minutes. Board members should read their packet before coming to a meeting. However, if we give them a huge stack of information, research shows that most will not adequately review what we’ve provided. However, if we can minimize the time it takes to read our packets, most of the board will come prepared ready for discussion. Bulleting reports helps people read faster.

Another practice is creating a culture of healthy dissent at meetings. Healthy dissent can be accomplished through encouraging people to ask questions. Some boards become zombies and listen to the most dominant members or their executive and nod their heads in agreement to whatever they say. We call this a bobble-head board, and it’s not what we encourage. The most important thing a board member can do at any meeting is to ask meaningful questions. Another way to encourage dissent is to have staff or committees present options for the board to debate rather than providing a specific recommendation. Healthy dissent is created when people’s inquiries are appreciated, and through healthy discourse, board members engage in dialog.

We are not fans of Robert’s Rules as an indicator of a meeting’s success. Those rules have a place in setting clear boundaries when the group is engaged in conflict, but often get in the way of meaningful discussions. So if your bylaws call for the use of Robert’s Rules, understand that even Robert gave permission for the presiding officer (the board chair or president) to enforce rules as needed. This power is called “modified Robert’s Rules” and it works for most nonprofit meetings.

Ram Charan, the for-profit governance guru, encourages boards to use each member, and even senior staff from time to time, as meeting facilitators. While the presiding officer has the designated responsibility for running meetings, that does not exclude others from occasionally taking center stage, especially when they have either facilitation skills or special knowledge on an issue to be discussed.

The last and maybe most important strategy for board meetings is to use that time to motivate individuals to serve. We all need reinforcement. Make sure every meeting begins with time to connect to the mission. Allow time for the unique and busy individuals serving on your board to connect to each other. These two simple thoughts can do wonders in creating an environment where people can actually enjoy serving your organization.

In summary, the points to effective meetings include:

  • Limit the number of committees your nonprofit uses by minimizing standing committees and only adding committees for a limited period when there are specific priorities better addressed by a committee than the whole.
  • Clearly identify and state the outcome(s) for the meeting. Meeting outcomes are more important than the sequence of events usually outlined in an agenda. The number of outcomes to address in each meeting depends on the length of the meeting. One-hour meetings can usually address only one outcome, a day-long meeting could possibly address five.
  • Make sure your meetings are structured where people can talk to each other, not just listen while others report. Establish clear outcomes and work to accomplish something at every meeting.
  • Boards should use consent agendas for pre-approved issues needing little discussion in order to maximize time for meaningful discussion and solving problems.
  • Use dashboards to present ongoing and agreed upon performance measures.
  • Bullet all reports including the minutes to assist members in preparing for meetings – arriving ready to have meaningful discussions and solve problems.
  • Encourage healthy dissent. Reinforce members who ask the great questions that engage the group in meaningful discussion.
  • Use Modified Robert’s Rules.
  • Use any member of the group, board or staff to facilitate discussion from time to time.
  • Connect people to the mission and to each other every time you meet.

In conclusion, meetings are essential, but we may want to control our meeting habit. We should become conservative when we establish committees making sure we really need to start another one. When we meet, we need clear outcomes and if we have none, we should seriously reconsider even meeting. And when we meet, we need to work to solve a problem, learn something new, and connect to each other and the mission.

Want to meet?