How Being Ruthless Can Improve Your Meetings

We’ve all been victimized (or been the victimizer) of boring unproductive meetings. There are hundreds of articles, posts, and books chock full of tips about how to avoid boring meetings, but today I’m going to write about something seldom said. This post concerns any kind of volunteer or staff meeting held on a recurring basis.

Roberts Rules of Order is your friend, not your master.

If you’re using the same agenda template for every single meeting, is it serving your needs or has it become your master? For example, let’s say that your practice has been to give each person (officer or committee chair in a nonprofit) time on the agenda to report. I’m thinking about Roberts Rules of Order for you nonprofiteers out there. That may work for you 90% of the time, but what about the cases where you are faced with a crisis. In a business setting, a key customer may be threatening to take his business elsewhere. In a nonprofit, your capital campaign chair may have just resigned mid-way through your campaign.

Do you really want to give each person a few minutes to speak when you need to devote almost the entire agenda to this one topic? Don’t be afraid to throw the format out the window. Put this topic at the top (oh, go ahead and approve the minutes from the last meeting first, if you need to:-)

Unless there’s something in your bylaws that says you’re required to follow Roberts Rules, don’t be afraid to modify the agenda in a manner that best fits your needs in times of crisis. Don’t be wimpy and do things just because they’ve always been done that way; be ruthless in managing your time and your fellow employees/volunteers time in a way that is most efficient and effective. If that means devoting 80% of your agenda to one topic because it’s a critical time sensitive issue, then go for it.

Do your meetings enhance or hinder your work?

Is it your custom or bylaws requirement that you have regular meetings? If so, is every single one necessary? Do you really need to have monthly meetings just because that’s the way¬† it’s always been done? Is that the best use of everyone’s time? If not, be ruthless and change the bylaws or custom to quarterly, or every other month. Meetings should advance your mission or contribute to your goals, not hinder them.

Encourage dialogues, discourage monologues

Even if you’re rolling out a new plan that requires a presenter spend the bulk of the time presenting, you must still allow time for not only questions but suggestions and brain storming on implementation. Be ruthless in sending out information to attendees in advance and in creating the expectation that they will review it as pre-work. There’s nothing worse than wasting meeting time on something that could have been sent out in as an update in an email. Use your meeting time to focus on what’s truly important.

Imagine what would happen if you developed the reputation of having relevant meetings that helped people meet their goals as opposed to those that were inefficient.

Sometimes it’s okay to be ruthless.

Three Ways To Improve Your Nonprofit Board & Committee Meetings

Having spent 30 years in the nonprofit sector, I’ve attended a great number of volunteer board and committee meetings. Some of them were very productive; most were fairly productive, and then there were many that were a total waste of time. These last were usually the furthest from home and held later in the evenings.

One large board faced particular difficulties. Meetings suffered from low attendance and weren’t effective at setting goals and objectives. Officers and chairs took turns boring each other with oral reports about what had happened in the past.

As the staff liaison with that board, I sat down one day with the president and she and I came up with some simple rules that energized the board and helped to attract new members.

  1. Officer and chair reports of prior activity were required to be submitted in writing. No longer would members be bored by someone reading a long report about what had already happened. These reports were “approved as written,” instead of “approved as read.” Yes, questions could be asked of, say, the treasurer’s report.
  2. Oral reports focused on the time between now and the next meeting. Their time on the agenda moved from reciting what they had done to posing questions to the board about what assistance they needed between now and the next board meeting. This simple change made all the difference. Where reports had been past tense, now they were “future tense.” Board members were asked for their opinions and to be part of decision-making. Boring reports were replaced by energized discussion. Attendance picked up as board members began making a difference in the meetings.
  3. We invited guests. Our board meetings were not closed; they were open to the public, so our third step was to encourage board members to bring guests. Within three meetings this change paid off as we recruited a guest to fill a key committee chairmanship.

It took three or four meetings for board members to adjust to the new normal, but by the end of that time they were seeing the results. Meetings were livelier, better attended, more productive, and they were proud to bring guests, some of whom went on to become volunteers or who helped open other doors for us.

It’s important to note that we still used Roberts Rules of Order as our agenda template. It wasn’t the agenda format that was the problem. It’s what the members did with it that created unproductive meetings.

When you’re having problems with effective board meetings think outside the agenda. Consider what we did and see if it works for you.