Why Am I Here?

21 12 2009

Cheating the Meeting Reaper: Avoiding Death by Meeting II

Meeting attendees sit around a table, still doodling on their pads. They’re wondering why they were invited. Is there a diplomatic way to depart? You’ve already planned this as an important meeting, so there must be some other problem. One strong possibility is that you didn’t think about the invitation list.

Once you’ve decided that you need a meeting, the next step is to consider who should be there. This is just as important as the agenda. Having the right people at your meeting makes it much more productive, your staff is happier, and your volunteers are more enthusiastic.

Time is your most valuable asset. In any service business, and especially nonprofits, payroll is your most costly expense. Every hour a person spends in a meeting is an hour that is not being spent elsewhere. If you ask staff to step away from their work and come to a meeting, it should be worthwhile. Otherwise, you are wasting your agency’s resources.

Volunteers are also agency resources. Consider your Board of Directors. Of course, the entire Board should be at full board meetings. But committee meetings and ad hoc meetings are a different story. Inviting an important board member to a meeting to which he has little to contribute is a sure way to diminish his enthusiasm. Caring about the mission may not change, but if he sits there wondering if it is worth his time, he may think twice about coming to the next meeting.

Make sure that every person invited to a meeting is invited for a reason, and you know what that reason is.

Decisionmaker – someone who has to be fully informed to make a good decision on behalf of your agency
Opinionmaker – someone who has insight and opinions that will be beneficial to the decisionmakers
Information provider – someone who has factual information or experience that will be beneficial to the decisionmakers

I’ve been in organizations where everyone was invited to every meeting. Needless to say, after a while, they started coming late or leaving early….if they came at all. It’s like crying “WOLF!” Sooner or later the villagers stop coming to the aid of the little shepherd, and even the people who should be at your meetings will not be there. You’ve lost your willing workers.

Who should be at a meeting? People who will have to make a decision based on the discussion, and people who have information to contribute to the discussion. That’s it. Don’t leave out someone with extensive front line experience just because he’s a lowly staff member. Conversely, don’t invite someone just because she believes she should be there. There may be extenuating circumstances, but carefully consider the pros and cons.

True, an important board member may be offended not to be invited to a committee meeting; yet that same board member may stifle discussion, have the reputation of not being discrete, or have a hard time thinking beyond personal self-interest. Not inviting him may create ill will, even if the discussion is more robust. Similarly, inviting a really great person but whose input is minimal is also wasteful. Inviting a valuable board member to a meeting where she will have minimal input risks losing her enthusiasm.

In these cases, finesse the situation. Plan the meeting with the people you need, and if these upper echelon individuals might be offended to not be included, take them into your confidence. Let them know that you are having this meeting, but didn’t want to waste their time since there are other things that only they can do. They may still want to come, but at least they are the ones who made that decision.

Good luck! As a leader, you have to husband the resources of the organizations, and use them wisely. When it comes to attendees at a meeting, the most important thing to remember is that extraneous people is wasteful of time and talent.

In the words of Robert Burns, “The best laid plans of mice and men go aft agley”  Since  plans can and do go awry, you still have a few more tools available. Timed agendas and meeting management techniques will help corral overbearing speakers and keep the meeting moving. More on these in subsequent posts.

Note – My colleague, Susan Sherk, and I will be presenting Cheating the Meeting Reaper at the 47th annual international conference of the Association of Fundraising Professionals, April 2010. Join us!

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