It seems that whenever I place a phone call to a staff member of any nonprofit organization, I’m told 90 percent of the time that the person isn’t available because she or he is “in a meeting.” So, it’s apparent to me that managing meetings must be a critical part of the job description of nonprofit leaders. And because it’s so important, nonprofit leaders should be able to conduct meetings with confidence and finesse.
There are three parts to managing a meeting: preparing to meet, facilitating the actual meeting itself, and conducting post-meeting activities. The first step is to determine if you even need a meeting. People seem to be inundated with too many meetings, so figure out if a face-to-face meeting is essential or if there’s a better way to communicate. Only schedule a meeting if (1) you want to present information to many people quickly; (2) you truly want input from others; (3) you want to gain buy-in; (4) you want to motivate and energize the group; or (5) it will be more efficient and accurate than sending emails or making phone calls.
Next, be sure that the right people are at the table in the first place. When determining who really needs to attend a meeting, use this checklist: (1) Who needs the information firsthand? (2) Who is directly affected by the issue? (3) Who can contribute to achieving the meeting objectives? and (4) Who has the authority to approve or take action? After you decide who needs to be at the meeting, determine the role each person should play in the meeting and assign pre-meeting assignments, as appropriate, so everyone is prepared for his or her unique role.
The next step is to prepare an agenda. Many people regard a meeting with no agenda to be a waste of their precious time. Including specific start and end timeframes for each discussion item to keep on track, one of the most important roles of a meeting facilitator. And remember to plan ahead by determining what equipment and supplies you will need, including paper copies of the agenda, electronic copies of all documents that will be reviewed, flipchart and markers, notepads and sticky notes, computer and projector for any PowerPoint presentations, name tags (if it’s a large group of people who don’t know each other), and refreshments. Be sure to email the agenda and all related documents to everyone invited to the meeting at least 72 hours prior to the meeting. Actually, the Ralph M. Brown Act, California’s open meeting law that impacts many public meetings in Sonoma Valley, specifically stipulates that agendas for regular meetings must be posted 72 hours prior to the meeting.
Now that you’ve prepared for the meeting, facilitating the meeting is the next step. Start your meeting on time and facilitate introductions in a creative way, if possible. Instead of going around the room in deadly order and asking people to introduce themselves, for example, suggest that people mingle and share with each other why they are attending and what outcomes they anticipate. Then, explain the reasons for meeting and the process you will use to achieve the meeting’s objectives.
Sometimes it may be necessary for you to establish behavioral and procedural ground rules for how people should conduct themselves during the meeting. Examples could include the following: (1) everyone actively engages (2) be respectful of all opinions (3) contribute to meeting goals (4) listen with an open mind (5) stay on point and on time (6) attack the problem, not the person (7) support all decisions make by the group (8) avoid using words that can be misunderstood, including idioms and acronyms (9) no side conversations; and (10) turn all phones to mute.
As the leader of the meeting, it’s important for you to display enthusiasm, deliver clear messages, ask good questions, and to listen actively. Observe participants’ non-verbal signals and intervene if necessary. Either stick to the agenda or change it. A great tool is the use of a parking lot (or bike rack as it is typically called in healthy Sonoma County) — a sheet of flipchart paper taped to the wall where you can record any ideas that may be off-topic or may require further discussion at a later time. Model the behavior you expect of others, review and summarize often, and manage conflict as it arises. Regardless of how the meeting goes, it is essential to end on time. You might even consider having a meeting in a space with no chairs, since stand-up meetings are quicker and more efficient than traditional sit-down meetings.
At the end of the meeting, evaluate. Ask participants what they liked about the meeting and what suggestions they have for future meetings. After the meeting, send notes to participants and to those who didn’t attend, but are affected by decisions made during the meeting. Follow-up on commitments you make to the participants, and plan a follow-up meeting to ensure that commitments are implemented. Then, so that your meeting management skills continue to improve, select one skill to practice the next time you facilitate a meeting. Since meetings are such an important part of a nonprofit leader’s life, it makes good sense to be an effective meeting manager who gets positive results.