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Orchestrating great meetings

There is always a degree of mystique around the act of chairing a meeting. As a consequence, many perfectly competent people shy away from the opportunity to do so.

But good chairing can be learned. It is not unlike the role of an orchestra leader, whose only purpose is to bring out the best in all the players so that the audience can enjoy the music. The chair works to ensure that all members around the meeting table are able to effectively contribute to the decision-making process. This is really for one reason only – to ensure that the results of the meeting will positively contribute to the clients or community members that the not-for-profit or community organisation has been set up to serve.

The key to successfully chairing a meeting is to be absolutely clear about the purpose of the meeting. Once the meeting task is understood, it becomes easier to make the other decisions that may arise when chairing a meeting.

Building the agenda

Clarifying the meeting's purpose will determine the meeting's agenda, which needs to be developed by the chair in consultation with key participants.

The purpose needs to be printed clearly on the agenda to be distributed to all meeting participants well ahead of the meeting. Only include items on the agenda that will contribute to furthering the purpose of the meeting.

To help develop an agenda for a purposeful meeting, ask the following:

  • Are there any decisions that the meeting needs to make so that staff members or volunteers can proceed in their work?
  • Are there any key administrative decisions that have to be endorsed?
  • Are there any matters coming out of the committees that are at a point where the full meeting has to make a decision on them?
  • Are all these items accompanied by clear recommendations for action?

Put any item that calls for energy and fresh ideas near the beginning of the agenda. Also put urgent items early on, in case the meeting has to break with unfinished business.

At the other end, don't make the agenda too long. Under no circumstances should a meeting run for more than two hours. After that people are tired and unproductive.

It can be a good idea to put time allocations next to items, more or less depending on their importance. Don't be obsessed with clockwatching, but you want to be able to give the important things the time they need, and you can't do that if you've frittered away the meeting time on trivialities.

You should also consider alternating procedural meetings, where you hear reports and move motions and follow a regular agenda, and planning meetings, where you brainstorm and analyse and work on strategy.

The meeting papers

Make sure meeting papers are sent out at least a week before the meeting, accompanied by any necessary background papers – proposals, budgets, etc. Don't be tempted to include articles that may be of interest but will not really contribute to the meeting's outcomes. Board members who get swamped with paper may actually end up reading none of it or leave out the pertinent pieces, so that they come to the meeting unprepared – which will make your role as chair that much more difficult.

If there are unrelated articles of interest, organise a mail-out at a later date or table them at the end of the meeting so that participants can pick up copies on their way out of the room, if they so wish.

Ideally, any recommendations for decisions should also be circulated in writing so they can be voted on at the meeting without any confusion about wording.

Without being too pessimistic, an experienced chair is not surprised when participants have not read their papers, even if they are brief and relevant. And lack of knowledge about an item never inhibits some people from loudly voicing their opinion or passing judgement and diverting the discussion. Your knowledge of the papers and the meeting's purpose will assist you to calmly but assertively guide the participant to the relevant section of the papers to aid his/her understanding and bring the meeting back on track.

Meeting formalities

Have the secretary note attendance and apologies. Ask if there are any additions to the agenda. Ideally, there shouldn't be as people should be encouraged to put items on the agenda in advance. This gives people time to consider their positions. Of course, not everybody is that organised, and people must be given a chance to bring up important issues at short notice, but if something really important (but not necessarily urgent) comes up at this stage, consider holding it over to the next meeting.

Have the board sign off on the minutes of the last meeting. Only people who were at the meeting should vote on this point (a show of hands is sufficient). Minutes are the official record of the actions and decisions of the board, and should not be taken lightly.

After this comes matters arising from the minutes; this is an opportunity to check that the things that were planned at the last meeting have in fact been started by the people who were assigned to do them (a good chair will have checked this over with the staff before the meeting). Make sure that this agenda item doesn't swallow up the rest of the meeting's business – nothing should be discussed under this heading if it comes in elsewhere on the agenda, and the chair should be prepared to politely cut people off quite often.

Reports

The treasurer delivers the financial report and answers any questions. This is simply an explanation of the situation as it now stands – any discussion of fundraising or economies should come elsewhere in the meeting under its own agenda item.

The financial report should come early in the meeting, just in case the meeting has to decide on spending elsewhere in the agenda and needs to know the background.

The chair should have had a brief discussion with the treasurer before the meeting to be sure that he or she is on top of the figures. It is definitely part of the responsibilities of the board to satisfy itself that the organisation has adequate procedures to cover unexpected emergencies – enough insurance, a way of keeping an eye on cash flow and forward commitments, contingency plans, etc.

If there's a report from the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) it comes in next. This is the opportunity for the board and the staff to communicate. The CEO reports on background to the organisation's activities, for information only. If the issues involve any decisions from the meeting then they should be given their own place in the agenda and voted on separately.

If the board has any committees or sub-committees their reports should be represented now. The committees report on their activities and bring recommendations and proposals to the full meeting.

Conduct business

After the meeting has received the background it can consider the items that need to be decided. Each item should have its own section in the previously circulated agenda. Ideally, there should be a supporting paper for each issue, and recommendations for further action. Any motions or amendments should also be in writing. This is not only for the convenience of the secretary but so that it can be shown that decisions have been made according to the rules in case there is any argument later. For this reason, decisions should be made in the form of motions even when everybody agrees on them and there's no need for a vote.

If there is a lot of routine business, consider having a consent agenda – that is, routine motions (such as to accept committee reports or approve expenditure) that will be carried automatically unless someone asks the chair to move any of them to the regular agenda. This allows the meeting to concentrate on issues that are either important, or new, or both. Consent agenda items should be separated into their own section or marked with an asterisk to make sure their status is clear.

Some important but complicated issues – say, a re-examination of the organisation's mission statement – don't belong on the agendas of regular meetings unless they come with reports or specific recommendations for action. This kind of issue is better handled at a special meeting (or a retreat) where you can focus on this issue alone and talk through all its aspects without having to break away and take up other business.

After you've handled all the business on the circulated agenda, it's time to discuss any items that were brought up at the beginning of the meeting without notice, bearing in mind that if anybody wants more time to consider things you will probably need to put the question on the agenda of the next meeting.

Satisfactory conclusion

Always end on time and on a positive note so that people will feel that their contributions have been worthwhile. If there's a success to announce, bring it up here.

Briefly review decisions and in particular the actions resulting from the discussions. Tell the meeting that the minutes will be distributed within a week as an aide to help them remember what they have agreed to do.

Confirm the next meeting date and time to make sure everyone is able to attend.

Finally, thank the meeting participants for taking part. Remember that as volunteers, they have made a serious investment of their time to support your organisation and its cause.

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