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Diagnosing meeting ills … and working towards a cure

If your meetings aren't working, chances are your board isn't either.

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 everyone wants to explore. 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.

The diagnosis

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. The main problem here is boredom, not lack of time but lack of interest – why keep the torture going? 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.

The remedies

Purpose

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. Including "for information" items that don't relate to any items requiring a decision should be the exception, not the rule.

Meeting preparation

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:

  • Brief and well-structured reports that conclude with one or two recommendations. These will help focus the meeting on key issues and provides committee members with opportunities to make useful contributions.
  • All other "information only" materials attached to particular agenda items.
  • The agenda, which clearly states the purpose of the meeting and the expected outcomes of each agenda item.

Timing is everything

Structure the meeting and agenda so that participants deal with the most important matters first. This will encourage them to turn up 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.

The diagnosis

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.

The remedies

Leadership

A skilful chair is able to facilitate the meeting so that participants enjoy themselves and still achieve significant outcomes.

Encouraging ownership

To broaden ownership of the meeting and increase the chances of meeting follow up, members can be given responsibility 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 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 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. In your capacity as the chair you invite your friend to attend your board meeting as a guest speaker. The agreed agenda is rushed through and the new funding idea is deferred until next month's meeting. Afterwards, members complain that while they enjoyed the speaker, they are disappointed and frustrated at being forced to postpone work on the proposal for yet another month.

The diagnosis

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 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 meetings could easily lead to disaffection and loss of important supporters.

The remedies

Agreed changes

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, a 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 organisation. The meeting may decide to re-order the priority given to items and to add new agenda items.

Alternatively the meeting may agree to hold a supplementary meeting to exchange information and listen to invited speakers.

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