'Bad meetings make lousy organisations,' writes John McDonald of Transformative Justice Australia, a renowned Australian mediator. His words are highly appropriate for Australian non-profit and community organisations. 'Meetings matter because they reflect a culture that perpetuates itself,' he explains. 'If we go to boring meetings time and time again, full of unenthusiastic people, we cannot help but think we are working for a boring and lacklustre organisation. Bad meetings are a source of negative messages about our company and ourselves,' Daniels concludes.
Unsure about the sorts of messages your meetings are sending out? Scan the following scenarios of some common meeting 'ills' and some suggested 'tonics' for each.
They may help to boost your non-profit or community organisation's health.
The living noticeboard
In this meeting, agenda items are transformed into monologues usually spoken by one or more people in the organisation. Program and financial reports of the previous month's activities seem to take up most if not all, of the meeting.
Generally, members arrive late and often have to rush off before the meeting is finished.
Today the last agenda item, 'Any Other Business', is a colleague's opportunity to bring up that new funding opportunity you all agree should be explored. Time runs out and the funding proposal has to be postponed yet again to next month's meeting. You leave the meeting feeling enormously frustrated and de-energised.
You could extend the time allocated for the meeting and try to fit more in but that would be missing the real cause of the complaint - Why keep the torture going? The main problem here is boredom, not lack of time but lack of interest. Attendees have realised that everything that is spoken at them in the meeting could just as easily have been sent to them in a printed or email document.
People still attending "living noticeboard" meetings do so out of an underlying commitment to the organisation and its mission not because - they feel they can make a meaningful contribution.
First we need to re-acquaint ourselves with the main purpose of meetings.
We meet formally to productively exchange ideas and information. The results of which should be sound collaboratively developed and collectively agreed upon decisions. Consequently meeting agendas should only contain items that require meaningful input from the membership.
Background papers need to be circulated well before the meeting to allow people to read and reflect on their positions on the presented issues. The papers need to include:
Timing is everything
Structure the meeting and agenda so that participants are engaged early, on the matters of the most importance. This will encourage them to come on time.
Estimate how long each agenda item will take and put the planned timing on the agenda.
Ask a participant to keep track of time so that all agenda items are covered in the meeting with sufficient time for focused and informed discussion.
The serious bonding session
These meetings allow all participants to share their opinions on agenda items and in fact anything else of interest. Spleens are vented, and numerous good ideas are thrown into the ring. Everyone leaves the meeting feeling great.
On reflection, however, you realise that no decisions have been made and nobody has taken or been allocated responsibility for any future action.
The organisation does not meet again until next month and the deadline for that new funding opportunity may already have passed.
These meetings are fun but lack focus. The organisation finds it hard to move forward because no one has been encouraged to take responsibility for any action to do so.
A skilful chair is able to facilitate the meeting so that participants enjoy themselves and still achieve significant outcomes.
To broaden ownership of the meeting and increase the chances of meeting follow up, members can be given responsible for individual agenda items.
They can be asked to prepare background reading materials and lead the discussion for 'their' agenda items. They should estimate how long their agenda item is likely to take and to record the expected outcomes of meeting discussion.
Recording responsibility Accurate meeting notes or minutes should record the ideas generated and the decisions made during the meeting. Most importantly, the minutes need to indicate who has agreed to do what before the next meeting or by when.
At the end of the meeting, participants need to review each agenda item and confirm who is responsible for what.
The minutes should be written and circulated while the meeting details are still fresh in people's minds, preferably within a week of the meeting being held.
A table summarising the action resulting from the agenda and detailing people's responsibilities and timelines attached to the front of the minutes can be very useful for busy committee or board members.
Sometimes it can also be worthwhile to follow up progress with members between meetings. An offer of assistance or a word of encouragement can be enough to gently remind people of their agreed responsibilities.
Making time for pure fun
Finally, social occasions need to be factored into the organisation's calendar of events. They can make an invaluable contribution to your organisation's morale and sense of belonging but they cannot be the reason or place for general meetings.
Seize the day
The agenda has been set. That potentially risky funding idea is finally the first agenda item for discussion. A fellow board or team member has prepared well and has printed some evidence to support the proposal.
Your friend, who is president of a related interstate organisation, is in town for a conference. As chairman you invite your friend to attend your management committee meeting as a guest speaker.
The agreed agenda is rushed through. The new funding idea is tabled but discussion deferred until next month's meeting.
The Board member says that he enjoyed the speaker but conveys his disappointment and frustration at the organisation being forced to postpone work on the proposal for yet another month.
While spontaneity should always be encouraged in a healthy organisation, it needs to be tempered with a broad understanding of current key priorities.
Most community and non-profit groups depend on their volunteer member base for their very survival.
Their boards and committees have often been selected to include prominent and highly skilled community members committed to the organisation and its mission. Any work undertaken is for free and undertaken usually outside of and additional to normal working hours. Busy volunteers want to spend their precious time where they can make a difference. Continued frustrations with board and committee meetings could easily lead to disaffection and loss of important supporters.
Major changes to previously agreed agendas, such as the introduction of a guest speaker, need to be canvassed with all members prior to the meeting.
This allows the group to examine its priorities so that non-urgent agenda items can be deferred to the following meeting. If possible the revised agenda should be circulated before the meeting.
As a general rule, the meeting as a whole should agree to the agenda at the beginning of each meeting. This will provide the necessary flexibility to allow the meeting to urgently respond to new issues and events which impact on the organization. The meeting may decide to re-order priority given to items under discussion and to add new agenda items.
Alternatively the meeting may agree to hold a supplementary meeting to exchange information and listen to invited speakers.
But what should we be aiming towards? How much can meetings improve?
Bernard DeKoven, founder of the Institute for Better Meetings in Palo Alto California has the final word.
"People don't have good meetings because they don't know what good meetings are like. Good meetings aren't just about work. They're about fun-keeping people charged up. It's more than collaboration, its co-liberation - people freeing each other up to think more creatively."
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