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How to Get the Most Out of Your Nonprofit Meetings

By Korrin Bishop

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A conservative estimate for how long the average employee spends in meetings each week is six hours. For more senior-level employees, that time commitment can reach 23 hours per week.

Indeed, a well-run meeting presents an opportunity for teams to be collaborative, creative, and forward-focused. However, if nearly half of staff members’ work weeks are tied up in unproductive or poorly organized meetings, it might cost you upwards of $399 billion a year.

While it’s easy to get distracted in meetings or forget to budget the time needed to plan and host a productive meeting, getting the most out of your nonprofit meetings is crucial. They present an opportunity to unite your team around common goals, ensure departments aren’t operating in silos, and ultimately further your mission.

Use the five tips below to avoid wasting your staff’s time and productivity, and make the most out of each meeting at your nonprofit. Plus, we’ve included a few bonus tips for teams hosting remote nonprofit meetings.

1. Remember Your Meeting Starts Before Your Meeting

Have you ever shown up to a meeting and had no idea what its purpose was, or suddenly been asked to present on something for which you weren’t prepared? The best meetings start before the meeting, as participants are more likely to engage in the discussion if you’ve prepared them beforehand.

If you’re hosting the meeting, set aside time on your calendar at least one week in advance to plan out the content and expectations. Below are some things to consider as you go.

Set an Agenda

An agenda is the driving force of your meeting, so make sure it communicates a clear plan and goals. You may want to write a brief purpose statement on the top of the agenda that answers why you’re having the meeting and what you’ll accomplish by the end of it. For example, your purpose statement might read:

  • “Detail the needs for our winter email campaign and designate lead staff to address each need.”
  • “Determine which of the three initiatives discussed last month will be our organization’s focus for the first quarter.”
  • “Generate a list of new fundraising strategies to present to our board members.”

To maintain clarity on the purpose of your meeting, limit the number of unrelated discussion topics on your agenda. If you find that your agenda covers everything from your email campaigns to quarterly board updates, pause and consider splitting those into separate, shorter meetings focused on one to two key topics.

Finally, if you send an agenda in close proximity to the meeting, participants might not have time to look at it before arriving. Make sure to send it to all participants at least one week in advance so they can be ready to discuss the topics at hand and bring any needed materials with them.

Assess the Participant List

In the U.S., 68% of professionals report losing critical work time due to unnecessary meetings. This underscores the importance of making sure everyone in your meeting truly needs to be there.

Always ask if everyone on your invite list needs to be at the next scheduled meeting. Depending on the topic, it may not be necessary for some people to attend. Make sure you update your meeting invites regularly so people don’t feel that their time is wasted.

Assessing the participant list prior to your meeting also provides an opportunity to consider the best way to reach your attendees, whether that’s through visual means, slide presentations, or copy. For example, a meeting that focuses on branding is likely going to include graphic design elements, so make sure you’re prepared with the right tools to present the visuals to everyone.

This is also a good time for the meeting host to determine who should speak about each agenda topic or fill key meeting roles, such as being the timekeeper. As you assess how participants will fit into your meeting, make sure to reach out to them in advance so they can prepare for their roles.

Establish Group Norms

Group norms are a set of expectations and ways of communicating that a team determines and agrees upon before beginning its work. With the endorsement of all team members, group norms can help a team achieve its goals through a sense of shared ownership and belonging to the work ahead.

They can also provide a framework for how you’ll resolve any conflicts if they arise. Group norms may include items such as:

  • We will actively listen to everyone and avoid external distractions
  • We will assume good intent and be hard on ideas, not people
  • We will honor our timekeeper and begin and end meetings on schedule

Teams establish group norms before meetings, either through a meeting scheduled specifically for this purpose, or via email. To establish group norms for a team:

  1. Explain their purpose and ask your team to brainstorm topics they’d like to include
  2. Have a facilitator capture all ideas on a flipchart or shared online document
  3. Have the facilitator go through each item to help the team consider whether they’d like to add it to the final list of group norms
  4. Share the final list of group norms with the team for any final edits and to officially adopt them

As you facilitate the conversation, consider how you can link participants’ ideas for group norms back to your mission, vision, and values.

2. Stick to Your Schedule

Ineffective time management makes it so you can’t go through your full agenda, and it also lowers team morale. In fact, two of the biggest irritations of meeting participants are “arriving late or leaving early” (reported by 49% of respondents) and “people who talk about nothing for long periods of time” (reported by 46% of respondents).

There are several techniques you can use to stick to your schedule and make the most out of your nonprofit meetings.

Build in Time

To avoid starting late, either set the expectation that people arrive a few minutes early to get seated and be ready to start at your scheduled time, or intentionally build a buffer into your agenda for “getting settled” time.

Set Time Limits

Set time limits for each topic on your agenda and designate someone as a timekeeper. If you find that you need to run over on a particular topic, have your timekeeper communicate that intent with the group and share which other topic will need to be postponed for another meeting by doing so.

Create a Parking Lot

Create a “parking lot” for other tangential items that take the discussion off-course. Plan to loop back to these items in a future meeting or email so your team can stay on topic.

Be Active

Don’t waste precious time going over last meeting’s decisions and notes. Make your meetings active and focused on moving forward. Leave time at the end of your meeting for reflection and ideas for future agenda items.

3. Limit Distractions and Actively Listen

Active listening is a soft skill that improves communication within teams. There are many things you can do to be an active listener, such as:

  • Withhold judgement when people speak
  • Allow for pauses between speakers to make sure they’re finished
  • Show understanding by summarizing what was said and asking if you got it right
  • Ask clarifying questions to engage with a speaker’s points
  • Try to avoid developing a response in your head while someone else is still talking

Being interrupted can trigger defensive emotions in people, or disrupt a meaningful train of thought. To help, consider asking people to raise hands, take turns speaking, or pass around an object that signifies who the current speaker is.

It’s also important to remember that you can’t be an active listener if you’re on your laptop, phone, or preoccupied with other work tasks. Therefore, make it a group norm to keep technology and outside distractions to a minimum. People should be focused on the meeting rather than responding to emails, packing up belongings before the meeting is over, or refreshing their social media feeds.

Through limiting distractions and actively listening to one another, people are more present in meetings. This ensures your team members won’t miss important details or use extra work time later looking for answers already covered in the meeting.

4. Engage Your Employees

In meetings, it’s important to stay focused and take care of your business items, but it can be hard to do that if your team doesn’t feel engaged. By using the techniques below to increase engagement, you’ll avoid having employees “zone out” and miss important meeting information. You’ll also foster team creativity and innovation that can take your organization’s goals to the next level.

Make Time to Play

Implementing play at work has been found to reduce stress, enhance productivity, and increase learning. While you may have limited time each meeting, try to set aside five or ten minutes at the beginning or end to bond as a group.

Playful team-bonding activities can include trying a new icebreaker to get to know each other, taking some time to share about a colleague’s recent travel, or sharing something you’re grateful for about one of your teammates. Just make sure you plan for it so you can stay on schedule.

Connect Back to Your Mission

For longer meetings or off-site retreats, it can be a good idea to find an activity that grounds your team and reminds them of why they’re all there. You may want to start by having someone read your mission statement and then have a few employees share stories of your mission in action from the past year and how it relates to your meeting.

Know Your Team’s Strengths

Make your meeting engaging by highlighting the different strengths of participants through the roles they perform in the meeting. Do you have a team member who thrives when following a detailed itinerary? Consider making them the timekeeper. Is one of your colleagues an incredible storyteller? Ask if they’ll provide the recap of your recent fundraising gala to the team.

Remember, being able to conduct a meeting that plays off the strengths of your employees happens during your meeting preparation. As you pull the agenda together, think about what meeting roles would be best for everyone, and pick multiple presenters so it’s not just one person talking at everyone else.

Create a Pleasant Meeting Environment

Fluorescent lights, windowless rooms, and drably painted walls don’t get teams excited to sit for an hour-long meeting. These sparse spaces actually create a toxic environment for workers. On the other hand, incorporating plants, photos, mood lighting, or pleasant smells into an office improves employees’ memory retention and overall happiness.

5. Leave With Clear Next Steps

One of the best ways you can end your meetings is by being able to confidently say, “OK, so our next steps are…”

In the last few minutes of your meeting, summarize what you’ve covered. Then, ask your teammates what next steps you should capture, who will be responsible for them, and the timeframe for completing them. Writing these on a whiteboard as you discuss them is a great way to engage your team in the process by centering around a visual component to the recap.

Shortly after the meeting, send a follow-up email to participants that quickly lists the action items and their due dates, so they stay fresh and easily accessible to everyone until they are complete.

By proactively scheduling time in your meeting to summarize and agree upon next steps, team members can get to work right away on your project’s most important needs rather than losing time waiting for additional instructions. It also sets a precedent that meetings at your nonprofit are purposeful and worth the participants’ time despite already busy schedules.

BONUS: Tips for Remote Nonprofit Meetings

Being able to work remotely helps many organizations provide a positive work-life balance for their employees. However, 76% of meeting participants still report preferring face to face meetings due to their ability to better understand each other’s views and make decisions in person.

Remote meetings come with unique challenges, but there are several ways to improve your outcomes if you can’t meet face to face:

  • Have participants turn on their webcams. This helps team members process non-verbal cues, increases engagement, and limits multitasking.
  • Share your screen to walk through the agenda or other important documents. This provides a visual to better capture the audience’s attention.
  • Establish protocols for how to take turns speaking. Some web platforms may have a feature participants can click to “raise their hand” and wait for the facilitator to call on them.
  • Make sure everyone participating is in a quiet location to limit disruptive background noise.
  • Set standards for cell phone reception and internet speed needs to avoid bad connections.

Hone Your Nonprofit Meetings

Many nonprofit professionals may groan at the mention of yet another meeting on their calendar. However, with good preparation, set scheduling, and positive engagement, you can host a truly collaborative, effective meeting that keeps everyone working hard toward your nonprofit’s mission.

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