Running Effective Meetings: A Step-By-Step Guide for Nonprofits

Running effective meetings is easy with these 9 simple steps that move your campaign forward without wasting time or money.

Well-run meetings result in useful outcomes and leave attendees inspired, motivated and keen for action.

Poorly run meetings result in nothing and leave attendees exhausted, frustrated and keen for home.

And all meetings take time and cost money – two resources environment nonprofits typically have in short supply.

So how do you organise and run meetings that benefit your campaign without wasting time and breaking the bank?

Easy, just follow our 9 steps for running effective meetings:

No need to meet and discuss, let’s dive right in:

Step 1. Set a meeting objective

Every meeting you organise should have at least one objective.

And because you are a busy campaigner with no time to waste, your meeting objectives should result in useful and definite outcomes.

Here are some valid meeting objectives:

  • Reach a decision
  • Identify and assign tasks
  • Formulate a plan
  • Solve a problem
  • Generate new ideas
  • Appraise campaign performance

Meetings can have the objective of sharing information but check first whether this is a good use of everyone’s time. If you only want to tell people something perhaps an email, webinar or other communication channel would be more effective.

Tip – Complete this sentence to check your meeting has a useful and definite outcome:

After this meeting we will be able to…

Step 2. Develop a meeting agenda

Your meeting agenda lists the items you will discuss during your meeting.

And because you’re meeting for a purpose, your agenda items should map out how the meeting will achieve the meeting objective.

In addition, meeting agendas include information to ensure attendees are fully prepared to participate. Consider adding the following to your meeting agenda:

  • Date, time and location – Additional information, such as transport options and whether refreshments will be available, can be added in the invitation email
  • Attendees – List of who is attending (include their roles if attendees are unknown to each other)
  • Required preparation – Such as items attendees should bring to the meeting or documents attendees should read before the meeting – See next step
  • Objective(s) – The useful and definite outcome(s) the meeting will achieve
  • Agenda items – How the bulk of the meeting time will be used to achieve the objective
  • Other items – A five minute section at the end of the meeting for attendees to raise non-related points of interest

Agenda items are the discussion topics and activities you will use to achieve the meeting objective. So think carefully when developing your agenda items – what do you need to do to achieve your objective?

If your meeting objective is to come up with new ways to pressure campaign targets you may need just one agenda item – a brainstorm to generate ideas.

But if your meeting objective is to develop your campaign plan you may use agenda items that build on each other, for example:

  • Agenda item 1 – Conduct a campaign SWOT analysis
  • Agenda item 2 – Use SWOT headings to make recommendations
  • Agenda item 3 – Decide campaign goal and strategy
  • Agenda item 4 – Identify and assign tasks for the next planning step

When developing your agenda items:

  • List them in the order they should be discussed (some items may build on previous items)
  • State how much time is allocated to each item (and don’t go over time)
  • State who will lead each item (enabling active attendee participation and varying speakers makes for more interesting and productive meetings)

Before the meeting send a draft agenda to attendees and ask for feedback. Asking for feedback helps you avoid overlooking important items. It also builds enthusiasm for the meeting by giving attendee a say in how to achieve the meeting objective. And it gives you time to deal with bad news before the meeting rather than being caught out during the meeting.

After integrating relevant feedback share the final agenda with attendees.

Step 3. Share information before the meeting

Good decisions grow from good information. So ensuring meeting attendees have reviewed information relevant to the meeting objective is a crucial step in running effective meetings.

Share information with sufficient time before the meeting for attendees to prepare.

Take care not to introduce bias by emphasising information you like and downplaying or omitting information you dislike. If you have really bad news to share consider adding an agenda item to discuss how the campaign should handle it.

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Step 4. Recruit a meeting facilitator

For large or complex meetings – or meetings that may struggle to achieve the objective – consider using a meeting facilitator.

A meeting facilitator is someone who leads or guides a meeting without assuming control. Facilitators help attendees achieve the meeting objective by:

  • Ensuring everyone sticks to the agenda (including time limits)
  • Encouraging discussion to draw out ideas
  • Moving the discussion forward when it gets stuck or heated
  • Encouraging equal participation by drawing in quiet attendees and quietening down overbearing attendees
  • Summarising the main points at the end of each agenda item

Facilitators should be neutral to the purpose of the meeting, meaning they have no interest in what the meeting decides. As such, your facilitator does not need to understand the issue or your campaign. Further, facilitators are not expected to contribute their own opinions or ideas.

If you do not use a facilitator choose a meeting attendee to lead the meeting. This could be you as meeting organiser or the campaign leader (perhaps also you). In these cases it is appropriate for the facilitator to contribute to the discussion.

And, as we see in the next step, campaign leaders and other persons of authority attending the meeting should avoid using their position to stifle debate and control the outcome.

Step 5. Establish some behaviour guidelines

A key step to running effective meetings is to establish some guidelines for appropriate behaviour during the meeting. Some benign behaviour guidelines will also make your meetings more pleasant for attendees.

Have attendees agree to your guidelines either via email before the meeting or in the meeting before discussing the first agenda item.

Adjust the following guidelines suggestions to suit your situation:

  • We agree that the good of the campaign has greater importance than individual opinions and ideas.
  • We respect other people’s opinions and ideas – we will discuss and refine them and after consideration we may reject them but we will not ridicule or ignore them.
  • We believe everyone has an equal right to voice their opinions and ideas and to disagree with other people’s opinions and ideas regardless of their position in the campaign organisation.
  • We want this meeting to achieve its objective, so we agree to the following policy for reaching agreement (add your preferred policy, such as majority agreement or 75% of attendees agree).
  • In case we cannot reach agreement we will accept the campaign leader’s decision, which will be based solely on what is best for the campaign.
  • We will not share confidential information we hear in this meeting.

Top Tip! Make meetings fun – People are most creative when they are enjoying themselves. Create a relaxed atmosphere in which people feel safe to join the discussion.

Step 6. Be punctual

As a courtesy to attendees and to avoid wasting time make sure your meeting starts and finishes at the stated times.

Over on the businesses websites they advise meeting organisers to start punctually regardless of whether all attendees have arrived. To teach late arrivals a lesson they suggest refusing to recap for latecomers and even locking the meeting room door at one minute past the start time.

Here in the campaign world we play more nicely (when working with each other at least). We must also remember that often our meeting attendees are volunteers or people whose goodwill we will later rely on to deliver campaign activities.

So although you absolutely must be ready to start on time, cut late arrivals some slack as appropriate.

At the same time, be mindful of attendees who arrive on time and want to leave on time having achieved the meeting objective (no one said being in charge is easy).

Step 7. Park off topic ideas

When the creative juices are flowing good ideas come gushing out. This is when your meeting is at its most effective.

However, ideas do not respect meeting agendas, so some are bound to be off topic.

If you shut down the conversation at this stage and require everyone to stick to the agenda you risk losing useful insights and stopping the flow of ideas. However, if you allow the conversation to be sidetracked you risk failing to achieve the meeting objective.

Enter the idea parking lot.

When someone has a good – but off topic – idea write it down where it is clearly visible, such as the corner of a whiteboard. Then politely tell the person that this idea is worthy of discussion at a later date but right now we need to stick to the agenda.

Taking this approach builds a list of useful ideas and motivates others to call out their own ideas without fear of straying off topic.

In Step 9 you see how to make sure this valuable resource does not go to waste.

Step 8. Make decisions and assign tasks

Running effective meetings means meeting to achieve an objective. As such your meeting will be ineffective if attendees avoid making decisions.

So bring each agenda item to a close with sufficient time to make decisions.

To avoid stalemate situations in which agreement cannot be reached have attendees accept some behaviour guidelines before discussing the first agenda item – See Step 6. Establish some behaviour guidelines.

Once a decision is made decide who will be responsible for acting on the decision and when the work should be finished (if appropriate).

Complete this process for each agenda item and you walk out of your meeting not only having achieved your objective but also with a plan for moving your campaign forward. A plan with tasks assigned and deadlines set.

Tip – Insufficient information is perhaps the only reason to delay making a decision.

Step 9. Follow up after the meeting

For busy campaigners this final step to running effective meetings is perhaps the hardest to complete. The meeting is over, the objective achieved and everyone knows what he or she has to do next. All you want to do is get on with your next task.

But following up on your meeting by sending out a meeting summary and thanking participants is really important. Here’s why:

  • Boosts morale – Campaigning relies on relationships and relationships need nurturing. Sure, you all left the meeting happy at a job well done, but don’t leave it there. People need and expect a summary of what happened and will appreciate a final thank you for attending.
  • Taps the parking lot – Remember all those good ideas that got parked? It would be criminal to let them go to waste. Add them as an addendum to your meeting summary with some ideas for how to follow them up. You could also invite attendees to comment. Then make sure you pursue ideas worthy of action.
  • Reports your achievements – Everyone reports to someone, whether it is your manager, CEO or funders. Writing your meeting summary now makes it much easier to report your achievements later.

Write your meeting summary as soon as possible after the meeting. This ensures you capture the detail while it is fresh in your memory and removes the stress of having yet another uncompleted task on your list.

That’s it. You are now officially a meeting hero. Your campaign and the environment you work so hard to protect thanks you. And you know what, your meeting attendees also thank you for making good use of their time.

Conclusion on running effective meetings

Organising and running meetings is core work for environment campaigners. With our 9 steps to running effective meetings you turn a routine chore into a campaign boost. Start by setting a meeting objective that results in a useful and definite outcome. Then make sure your meeting achieves the objective.

About the Author

David Roe

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Dave is Silent Reef founder and course author.

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