This post is by Jacob Smith, co-author of the The Nimble Nonprofit: An Unconventional Guide to Sustaining and Growing Your Nonprofit. The book is so awesome that I asked Jacob to post adapted excerpts from it here for you, every Friday for ten weeks. Tweet at @brightplus3 if you’re loving it!
For many years we confessed to our membership in a faux organization we called “Conference Calls and Meetings for the Environment.” The joke was amusing, but the impact on our work wasn’t. It doesn’t take very many hour-long meetings to make a sizable dent in your weekly work time. When those meetings are carelessly planned or poorly run, you’ve added insult to injury.
Jason Fried and David Hansson, in Rework, describe meetings as toxic, advising to avoid them at all costs and keeping them as short as possible when you can’t avoid them. We largely share this view. Meetings can have real value, and, especially because so much work in so many nonprofit sectors is collaborative, it’s important to make time to touch base, brainstorm, sort through issues, and secure buy-in. But meetings can also suck up incredible amounts of time and energy. There are scores of ideas out there for making your meetings efficient and effective. Some of our favorites:
- Make your default meeting length ten or fifteen minutes instead of an hour. If you know you will need more time, you can always schedule something longer.
- Use an egg timer to start and end the meeting. Google reportedly uses a four-foot countdown clock with the remaining meeting time projected on the wall, and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg installed timers in city meeting rooms.
- Remove the chairs from the room before the meeting. Everyone stands for the entire meeting. Seriously. Your meetings will be shorter.
- No food. (And besides, it’s hard to eat while you are standing up.)
- Start and end your meetings promptly, no matter what, no matter who is missing, and no matter what else is going on.
- Instead of starting your meetings on the hour, begin at an unusual time (e.g., 1:17) to promote prompt starts.
- In advance of the meeting, make sure that there is a clear agenda and even clearer goals for every meeting. Expect everyone at your meetings to know the agenda and goals and come prepared to tackle them.
- Be smart about who needs to sit in on a meeting. Not everyone needs to be at every meeting, and not everyone needs to attend the entirety of every meeting.
- Expect and require people to be prepared. If a decision needs to be made, have the project lead narrow the field in advance and present the best options for consideration, rather than starting with a blank slate.
- Assign a facilitator and a notetaker for every meeting. Take meeting minutes in real time using either a shared document or by projecting the document onto a screen, with special emphasis on actual decisions and on work assignments. Spend the last few minutes of every meeting verifying the accuracy of and finalizing the minutes. Alternatively, require the notetaker to distribute the final minutes within ten minutes of the end of the meeting.
- Allow meeting attendees to publicly but anonymously rate every meeting (and the organizer of that meeting).
- Understand that sometimes people multitask precisely because the meetings they are in don’t demand their full attention. Multitasking can be a symptom of inefficient, overscheduled meetings. If you want to fix a multitasking problem, try having fewer meetings and making them shorter and more effective.
What can you do as an executive director? First, cancel your membership in your own Meetings for a Cause, especially those regularly scheduled hour-long calls where not much gets done anyway. Second, only schedule meetings (and only allow your staff to do so) when you really need them, establish a set of meeting ground rules for your organization, and rigorously enforce those rules. Empower and encourage your staff to brutally punish your own transgressions (e.g., five dollars in the coffee fund). Let people excuse themselves if nothing left on the agenda applies to them. Third, for meetings with donors and prospects and similar folks, assume they are at least as busy as you are. Be super-respectful of their time, and schedule, plan, and implement meetings with them accordingly. Fourth, in meetings with partners, colleagues, and other outside folks, where you can’t necessarily drive significant improvements in meeting behavior, find ways to nudge those improvements along as best you can. Any improvements will mean better meetings and more meeting-free time during your week.
All we are suggesting, really, is shifting the default from having meetings to not having them, and from hour-long meetings to as short as possible. Schedule meetings when you need them, and spend as much time as you need, but be smart and strategic and make sure your meetings ignite your staff’s passions and improve their work.