Planning and Facilitating Meetings

Note: This document is from a photocopy of what we believe is a chapter of a book entitled "Organizing for Social Change". We have no other information about the book, its author or publisher. The copy we obtained was deteriorated and in a few limited instances, certain words were unreadable. In those cases, we have attempted to reconstruct the sentence(s) with words that seem contextually appropriate within the meaning of the discussion.

B>Meetings can make or break an organization. If your meetings are well prepared, focused on planning for action, and facilitated in an efficient, yet involving and upbeat manner, they help build your organization. On the other hand, if your meetings are poorly planned, poorly run. and don't focus on planning for action, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to build an organization.

All meetings should help meet the basic principles of direct action organizing. First. the meeting should help the organization win concrete improvements in people's lives. Thus, all meetings must have concrete goals that matter and that are accomplished. If you are meeting with your organization's leadership, your goal is to plan, to make decisions, or to involve people in the work at hand. Few people want to attend a meeting, just to be meeting.

Second, the meeting should give people a sense of their own power. Meetings must be run efficiently and well so that people will gain a sense of their own power through participating. Make sure that meeting participants are encouraged to speak, ask questions. and gain confidence in their abilities.

Finally, the meeting should begin to change the relations of power. You do this when you build or strengthen your organization. Every meeting should strengthen your organization by making plans for raising funds, recruiting volunteers, training your board to function more effectively, or setting other plans for building your organization. Making sure that your organization grows and develops enables you not only to win immediate issue victories, but also to build an organization that has real power in the community.

Preparation

Well run, effective meetings require solid preparation. Too many organizers underestimate the time needed to plan and organize a good meeting. The hardest part. and certainly the most time-consuming aspect of a meeting, is the planning. Consider the following:

Goals It is critical that the organizer and key leaders have clear meeting goals in mind. Without them, it is difficult to figure out an agenda and hard to know who should attend. Every meeting should have concrete. realistic, and measurable goals of things you want to accomplish. Avoid goals such as:

  • To have a meeting. A meeting is not a goal in itself.
  • To educate people. It's tough to measure whether or not you've "educated" people. In addition, if your meetings consist primarily of educational programs, you will attract a different group of people than more action-focused meetings would.

Because most of your meetings, especially internal ones, should be used to plan action, make decisions, and build the organization, your goals should be such things as:

  • To develop a strategy and timeline to implement an issue campaign.
  • To develop a strategy and timeline for a specific tactic.
  • To recruit volunteers or new members.
  • To evaluate goals or programs and to plan for the future.
  • To decide upon organizational positions.

Site: The choice of meeting site will affect who comes to a meeting. Criteria for choosing a site include:

  • Familiarity. Is it a place with which people are familiar and comfortable?
  • Accessibility. Is the meeting site accessible for those you are trying to reach? Make sure that the room is accessible for disabled and elderly people. Central location is import and accessibility by public transportation may also be important.
  • Represents Constituency. Is the site perceived as a representative one for those who you want to participate? For example, if you are trying to build a multi-racial organization and your meetings are only held in an exclusively white church, your choice of site would not represent your constituency.
  • Adequate Facilities. Different meetings require different facilities. Small meeting need a small cozy room, while larger meetings need larger rooms with more elaborate facilities. Meetings of senior citizens need a good loud speaker. Meetings for young families need a safe space for child care. Be sure to consider all the things you might need before you choose a site.

Timing. Set the meeting at a time that is most convenient for those you want to attend. You may need to call several people and suggest possible options.

Chairperson. Every meeting should have a chairperson whose main job is to facilitate the meeting. It is best to have someone who does not need to present program suggestions or answer lots of questions to serve as the chairperson, who should be free to focus on facilitating the meeting instead of talking. The chairperson should be involved in setting the agenda so that he or she understands it and thinks it is workable.

Agenda. Who actually plans the agenda depends on the situation. In most organizations' regular membership meetings, the organizer works with the chairperson to plan the agenda. For board meetings, the organization's director works with the board president to plan the agenda. In general, it is a staff organizing function to work with leaders on developing agendas.

Whoever works on the agenda should assure that participants receive a printed agenda, which should list the topics and provide some background on the discussion. Many facilitators and agenda planners find that it helps them to list the objective of the discussion on the agenda (e.g., "the objective of this discussion is to decide upon which direction to proceed"). Another helpful tool for the chairperson is to assign suggested time limits for each agenda item. The board president of a public housing residents' management organization in Chicago was having trouble chairing the organization's board meetings. People talked for long periods of time and the meetings went on forever. By placing times on the agenda, this chairperson was able to keep the meetings to their allotted times, and their overall tone changed dramatically.

Every organizer wants commitment from every meeting. Getting commitment for work and participation builds the organization. Because this commitment is important, don't skimp on time for this section of the agenda. If this part of the meeting has to be dropped due to lack of time, you probably won't meet your goals. Every organizer has attended day-long seminars where the most important part of the agenda, the planning for action session, was so late in the day that everyone had either left or was exhausted. Make sure that everyone leaves with something concrete to do.

For organizational meetings where many decisions will be made, such as board meetings, consider ordering the decisions as follows:

  • Easy decisions -- Ask the group to make a few easy decisions; it gets people off to the right start.
  • Hard, controversial decisions -- Next, put the hard decisions that require lots of discussion.
  • Moderate, non-controversial decisions -- At the end. put decisions that are of moderate importance, but upon which most people will probably agree. People are tired, so they don't want to debate things. And, you want to end the meeting on a harmonious note, if at all possible.

Once an agenda has been developed, review it to ensure that it meets the goals of the meeting. Change it if necessary.

Background/Materials/Proposals. Whoever plans the agenda should identify materials and proposals that would provide the necessary background for people to make good decisions and would save the group time. In general, people find it easier to respond to proposals than to create programs from scratch. Written proposals enable people to identify the points of disagreement or concern. The larger the meeting, the more important it is that proposals be recommended for groups to choose from and alter. Small groups can create strategies and develop plans, but large groups can only alter and choose. Plan an agenda that fits the group size you expect.

Meeting Roles. Assign all meeting roles before the actual meeting. There are at least five reasons for people having particular leadership roles in a meeting. The first is that someone is good at something -- leading a song, facilitating discussion, welcoming people, or whatever. The second reason is based on someone's [organizational] role. It is the treasurer's job to give the financial report. Not to have the treasurer give the report would be a slight to the person. The third reason for assigning a particular role is political. It would be politically good for your organization if a particular person played a leadership role in the meeting. The fourth reason is to develop leaders. People need experience in making presentations and leading discussions in order to develop. The fifth reason is to get people to attend. People will come if they have a role to play; thus, the more roles you have, the better.

Typical roles in meetings include:

  • Facilitator/Chairperson. This person sees that the meeting moves forward and follows the agenda, unless the agenda is changed by a vote of the group.
  • Notetaker. This person takes notes about the meeting. This person or the facilitator may also write the meeting's main points on a newsprint, which is placed so that everyone attending can see it.
  • Timekeeper. A timekeeper reminds the chairperson about the time constraints.
  • Presenters. A variety of people can present various programs, ideas, and reports, as appropriate to the group. These people should be different from the facilitator/chairperson.
  • Tone-Setter. This should be a person who can open or close a meeting with a prayer or song.
  • Greeter. In large organizational meetings, ask at least one person to welcome new people and get their names and addresses as they enter.

Room Arrangements/Logistics. Before the meeting. assess the actual room you will use in order to plan the room arrangements and logistical details. Possible items to consider include:

  • Chair Arrangements. Chairs in circles or around tables encourage discussion and cohesiveness. Podiums and theater arrangements encourage formality. Decide which arrangements are best. Set up fewer chairs than the number expected. It's better to add chairs than have chairs sitting empty.
  • Displays. Is there a way to display posters without incurring any damage [to] the walls? Is an easel available?
  • Outlets for Audio-Visual Equipment. Will you need to bring extra extension cords?
  • Place for People to Sign In. Where can you place the sign-in table to assure that you obtain names, addresses, and phone numbers for follow-up?
  • Refreshments. Do you plan to have refreshments? If so, who will bring them? Can someone else bring the plates or cups? Do you need outlets for coffee pots? Is this a room arrangement whereby people can bring food without disrupting the meeting? Who will handle cleanup?
  • Microphone Set-Ups. Will you need microphones? Will someone be available to set up and test the equipment? Is there a way to adjust the volume from the back? Is the equipment height adjustable?

Asking people to bring items or to help arrange things for the meeting helps to assure their attendance. Assign people to bring coffee cups, cookies, tablecloths, agendas, posters, sign-in sheets, tape players, or flowers. Ask different people to set up chairs, sound equipment, or informational displays. Delegating tasks ahead of time may seem more trouble than it's worth, but it gets people involved in the meeting and the organization also makes the meeting run smoothly, which people appreciate.

Turnout. If you want your large membership meetings well attended, make plans to remind people. Do not rely on mailings to get people to a meeting. If your meeting involves only a few people, one person can call everyone a day or two ahead. If you are hoping for larger number of people, recruit a number of people to help call those you want to attend. Calls should be made no more than three days before the meeting, although written notices or public announcements should be made as far in advance as possible.

These calls have an organizing function as well as aiding turnout. Explain the issues that will be discussed at the meeting, why they are important, and identify points of controversy. Because the leadership has already set the organization's program, the function of this type of meeting is to carry the program into action. It is the responsibility of the organizer to ensure that people come to the meeting prepared to do so.

For many groups, child care and transportation are barriers to people's participation. If you can make arrangements for both, you can increase your participation. Be sure to mention these in calls if they are available.

For large organizational meetings, keep track of what percentage of those who agreed to come actually showed up. This will give you a figure on which to base future turnout projections.

You can also compare sign-in sheets with lists of people, leaders, or groups who agreed to recruit to the meeting. You will then know who the real leaders are or what organizations are most effective in recruiting people.

Needless to say, once you have prepared for the meeting, most of the work is over. It s like producing a play. The time-consuming pan is the rehearsing, not the actual performance.

Meeting Facilitation

Every meeting should be enjoyable, run efficiently, and build organizational morale. Although these characteristics may be difficult to measure, they are terribly important. No one wants to attend meetings that are boring or poorly run. Efficient meetings respect people's time as their most valuable resource. They also build organizational morale by generating a sense of unity and helping people respect and support one another.

Every meeting needs a facilitator, a person who helps the meeting accomplish its goals. In order to be adequately prepared. the chairperson must know ahead of time that she or he will facilitate the meeting. There's nothing worse than arriving and asking, "Who's chairing this meeting"? If no one has prepared to facilitate, the meeting will probably be poorly run.

Being a good facilitator is both a skill and an art. It is a skill in that people can learn certain techniques and can improve their ability with practice. It is an art in that some people just have more of a knack for it than others. Some positions in organizations, such as board presidents, require them to facilitate meetings; thus, board presidents must be trained in how to do this. Because other meetings don't require that particular people act as facilitators, you can draw upon members with the requisite skills. Facilitating a meeting requires someone to:

  • Understand the goals of the meeting and the organization
  • Keep the group on the agenda and moving forward
  • Involve everyone in the meeting, both controlling the domineering people and dragging out the shy ones
  • Make sure that decisions are made democratically.

The facilitator must assure that decisions are made, plans are developed, and commitments are made, but in a manner that is enjoyable for all concerned. A good facilitator is concerned about both a meeting's content and its style. By having the other roles suggested, such as notetakers and timekeepers, the facilitator has some assistance in moving the agenda along. Here are some guides for meeting facilitation:

Start the Meeting Promptly. Few meetings actually begin on time these days, but you do not want to penalize those who did come on time. For large group meetings, plan to start within ten to fifteen minutes of the official beginning time. For smaller meetings, particularly regular organizational meetings, start exactly on time.

Welcome Everyone. Make a point to welcome everyone who comes to the meeting. Do not, under any circumstance, bemoan the size of the group. Once you are at a meeting, the people there are the people there. Go with what you have. (You may want to analyze the recruitment plans after the meeting.)

Introduce People. If just a few people are new, ask them to introduce themselves. If the group as a whole does not know one another well, ask people to answer a question or tell something about themselves that provides useful information for the group or the chairperson. The kinds of questions you should ask depend upon the kind of meeting it is, the number of people participating, and the overall goals of the meeting. Sample introductory questions include:

  • What do you want to know about the organization? (if the meeting is set to introduce your organization to another organization)
  • How did you first get involved with our organization? (if most people are already involved, but the participants don't know one another well)
  • What makes you most angry about this problem? (if the meeting is called to focus on a particular problem).

It is important to make everyone feel welcome and listened to at the beginning of a meeting. Otherwise, participants may feel uncomfortable and unappreciated. and won't participate well in later parts of the meeting In addition. if you don't get basic information from people about their backgrounds and involvement, you may miss golden opportunities. For example. the editor of a regional newspaper may attend your meeting, but if you don't find out that person's connections, you won't ask for an interview or special coverage.

The chair of a meeting may need to introduce him or herself and tell why he or she is speaking or facilitating the meeting. This is especially true when most people are unfamiliar with the chairperson. It never hurts for chairpersons to explain how long they have been a part of the organization, how important the organization is to them, and what outcomes they hope for from the meeting.

Review the Agenda. Go over what's going to happen in the meeting. Ask the group if the agenda is adequate. While it will be fine 90 percent of the time, someone will suggest an additional item in the other 10 percent. Either the item can be addressed directly in the meeting, or you can explain how and when the issue can be addressed.

Explain the Meeting Rules. Most groups need some basic rules of order for meetings. If you choose to use a formal system, such as Robert's Rules of Order, make sure that everyone understands how to use them. If not, a few people can dominate the meeting solely based upon their better understanding of Robert's Rules.

Encourage Participation. Every meeting should involve the people who come. Encourage leaders and organizers to listen to people. Seek reports on what people have done and thank them. Urge those with relevant background information on past decisions and work to share it at appropriate times. Draw out those who seem withdrawn from discussions.

Stick to the Agenda. Groups have a tendency wander far from the original agenda. When you hear the discussion wandering off, bring it to group's attention. You can say, "That's an interesting issue, but perhaps we should get back to the original matter of discussion."

Avoid Detailed Decision-Making. Frequently it is easier for a group to discuss the color of napkins than it is the real issues it is facing. Have a group not get immersed in details, suggesting instead, "Perhaps the committee could resolve that matter. You don't really want to be involved in this level of detail, do you?"

Move to Action. Meetings should not only provide an opportunity for people to talk, but should also challenge them to plan ways to confront and change injustice, in whatever forms it takes. Avoid holding meetings just to "discuss" things or "educate" people. Meetings should plan effective actions to build the organization.

Seek Commitments. Getting commitments for future involvement is usually a goal of most meetings. You want leaders to commit to certain tasks, people to volunteer to help on a campaigns or organizations to commit to support your group. Make sure that adequate time is allocated to seeking commitment. For small meetings. write people's names on newsprint next to the tasks they agreed to undertake. The chairperson may want to ask each person directly how he or she wants to help. One rule of thumb, especially for meetings of less than ten people, is that everyone should leave the meeting with something to do. Discourage people from "observing" meetings. You need doers, not observers. Don't ever close a meeting by saying, "Our organizer will get back to you to confirm how you might get involved." Seize the moment. Confirm how people want to get involved at the meeting. There will be more than enough other follow-up work to be done.

Bring Closure to Discussions. Most groups will discuss items ten times longer than needed, unless the facilitator helps them recognize that they are basically in agreement. Formulate a consensus position, or ask someone in the group to formulate a position that reflects the group's general position and then move forward. If one or two people disagree, state the situation as clearly as you can: "Tom and Levonia seem to disagree on this matter, but everyone else seems to be in agreement to go in this direction. Perhaps we should decide to go in the direction of most of the group, but maybe Tom and Levonia can get back to us on other ways to accommodate their concerns.

Some groups feel strongly about reaching consensus on issues. If your group is one of these, be sure to read the book on consensus decision-making listed in the resource section on meetings. Most groups. however. find that voting is the most appropriate way to make decisions. A good rule of thumb is that a vote must pass by a two-thirds majority for it to be a good decision. If only a simple majority (fifty-one percent) is reached, it does not have strong enough support to make it a good decision. For most groups to work well, they should seek consensus where possible, but take votes in order to move decisions forward and make leaders accountable.

Respect Everyone's Rights. The facilitator is the protector of the weak in meetings. He or she encourages quiet and shy people to speak. and does not allow domineering people to ridicule others' ideas or to embarrass them in any fashion. Try one of these phrases for dealing with domineering people: "We've heard a lot from the men this evening, are there women who have additional comments?" (assuming the domineering one was a man). Or, "We've heard a lot from this side of the room. Are there people with thoughts on the other side of the room?" Or, "Let's hear from someone who hasn't spoken yet."

Sometimes people dominate a discussion because they are really interested in an issue and have lots of ideas. There may be ways to capture their interest and concern, without having them continue to dominate the meeting. For example, consider asking them to serve on a taskforce or committee on that matter.

In other situations, people just talk to hear themselves. If a person regularly participates in your organization's meetings and regularly creates problems, a key leader should talk with him or her about helping involve new people and drawing others out at meetings.

Be Flexible. Occasionally, issues and concerns arise that are so important, you must alter the agenda to discuss them before returning to the prepared agenda. If necessary, ask for a five-minute break in the meeting to discuss with the key leaders how to handle the issue and how to restructure the agenda. Be prepared to recommend an alternate agenda, dropping items if necessary.

Summarize the Meeting Results and Follow-Up. Before closing a meeting. summarize what happened and what followup will occur. Review the commitments people made to reinforce them, as well as to remind them how effective the meeting was.

Thank People. Take a moment to thank people who prepared things for the meeting, set up the room, brought refreshments. or typed up the agenda. Also, thank everyone for making the meeting a success.

Close the Meeting on or Before the Ending Time. Unless a meeting is really exciting, people want it to end on time. And remember, no one minds getting out of a meeting early.

Follow-Up

There are two main principles for meeting follow-up: Do it, and do it promptly. If meetings are not followed up promptly. much of the work accomplished at them will be lost. Don't waste people's time by not following up the meeting. There's nothing worse than holding a good planning meeting, but then allowing decisions and plans to fall through the cracks because follow-up was neglected.

Make sure that your notetaker prepares the meeting notes soon after the meeting. Otherwise, he or she will forget what the comments mean, and they will be useless later. Organizers should work with the notetakers to assure that these notes are clear and produced in a timely fashion.

Call active members who missed the meeting. Tell them you missed them and update them on the meeting's outcome. If you are actively seeking new people, call anyone who indicated that he or she would come, and not just active members.

Thank people who helped make the meeting successful, including people who brought refreshments. set up chairs, gave presentations, and played particularly positive roles in the meeting. Don't forget to thank the people "backstage," such as the clean-up crew, child care workers, or parking lot security guards.

Call the chairperson. Thank him or her for chairing and review the outcome of the meeting. If appropriate, discuss ways to improve the meeting for next time.

Call new people who came to the meeting. Thank them for coming and see about setting up one-on-one meetings with people who look like potential leaders. Be sure to follow up with people while their interest is still fresh.

Once the minutes are prepared, write relevant reminder notes in your calendar. For example, if someone agreed to research something by March 15, jot down to call the person on March 7 and inquire about how the research is progressing.

Before the next meeting, the officers and staff should assure that tasks that were agreed to at the last meeting are accomplished. Reports should be prepared for the beginning part of the next meeting.

Place a copy of the meeting notes in an organizational notebook or file so that everyone knows where the institutional memory is kept. For meetings of your board of directors, the minutes are the legal record of the corporation. Minutes record important legal decisions and are reviewed as part of the annual audit.

Participating in Meetings

Everyone who participates in meetings has a responsibility to help make them a success. We can't always control others, but we can control ourselves. Below are some do's and don'ts for participating in meetings:

Do

  • Personally welcome new people
  • Actively listen to others
  • Support the facilitator in moving the agenda ahead
  • Recommend ways to resolve differences
  • Participate in discussions
  • Encourage new people to speak and volunteer
  • Help set up and clean up the room
  • Be positive and upbeat throughout the meeting
  • Tell a joke or add a light comment to ease the tension in a difficult discussion.

Don't

  • Dominate the discussion
  • Bring up tangents
  • Dwell on past problems
  • Insist that people support your ideas.

Every meeting is important and must be planned with great attention. With solid planning, good facilitation, and strong follow-up, an organization can move forward in ways that win real victories, give people a sense of their own power, and change the relations of power. Meetings play a significant role in achieving your goals and deserve your utmost attention. Make your organization the one with the fun, productive meetings.

Meeting Checklist

  • Have you set concrete, realistic goals?
  • Is the site familiar, accessible, representative, and adequate?
  • Are the date and time good for those you want to attend?
  • Do you have a chairperson for the meeting? Has the chairperson been involved in preparing the agenda or been fully briefed?
  • Does the agenda:
    • Accomplish the goals
    • Encourage commitment and involvement
    • Provide visible leadership roles
  • Do you need.
    • Printed agenda
    • Background materials
    • Proposals
  • Have you asked people to serve as the:
    • Chairperson/facilitator
    • Notetaker
    • Timekeeper
    • Presenters
    • Tone-Setters (open and close meetings)
    • Greeter (welcome people and get names and addresses)
    • Refreshment servers
  • Have you considered the following logistical matters?
    • Chair arrangements
    • Newsprint and markers
    • Easel or chalkboard
    • Outlets for audio-visual equipment
    • Sign-in sheets and table
    • Refreshments
    • Microphone set-ups
  • Do you have a turnout plan and enough people working on making turnout calls? Do you have a system for comparing those who said they will come with those who actually come?
  • Have you arranged for childcare?
  • Do you have transportation for those who need it?

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