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Nonprofit Meeting Culture: Beth & Andrea Answer Your FAQs

Thank you to everyone for joining us on February 12th for our webinar with Beth Kanter and Andrea Kihlstedt, Nonprofit Kick Start 2015: Creating Healthy & Productive Meetings. If you missed the event, you can view the full recording and slides here in our Webinar Archives. In this follow-up to our event, Beth and Andrea will answer some key questions our attendees submitted about how to create healthy and productive meetings for their nonprofits:

Part 1: Six Common Meeting Problems and How to Solve Them by Andrea Kihlstedt

  1. In our organization, meetings go on and on and on. We waste so much time, but it seems like it’s part of the culture of our organization. What can I do to change it?

Andrea Kihlstedt, author and co-founder, Andrea Kihlstedt, author and co-founder,

The first step in changing any culture is to make people aware of it. Culture often seems like wallpaper. You stop seeing it after a while. People just take it for granted.

So, if your organization has a culture of too many meetings that go on and on, start documenting it. Ask people in different departments to document the meeting practice. Bring the results of your research to your ED or executive committee.

Don’t point fingers, just notice and raise it as something that, if changed, might make the organization more effective.

  1. Our staff meetings often feel like time wasted. What do people use staff meetings for and whats their best use?

Staff meetings have three primary functions. They strengthen a team, they help people see their jobs in a broader context and they provide a forum for highlighting challenges that effect entire organization.

Here are four tips for making staff meetings work well:

  1. Design the meetings so they make best use of the synergistic effect of bringing everyone together. That means not using staff meetings for long reports!
  2. Send background information for everyone to review before the meeting so the time together can be used for discussion and decisions.
  3. Get input from all of the participants about the agenda for each meeting. Staff meetings belong … well … to the staff. So engage everyone in advance about what the next meeting should accomplish.
  4. Because staff meetings are recurring, pay close attention to starting on time and ending a few minutes early. That, of course, requires the agenda be designed to fit the time frame. And, if you can, appoint someone to manage the meeting time, calling attention to the amount of time left.
  1. We’ve got some serious braggarts in our group. How can I get people back on topic when they stray far from the topic?

You might consider appointing a “Meeting Master.” That is, someone who has explicit responsibility for keeping the meeting on track and on time. If you set that up in advance and let everyone know, fewer people will stray. With recurring meetings, you might consider asking someone different to play that role each time.

  1. Whats the best way to have virtual meetings in an organization where people seldom get together?

Virtual meetings are challenging, even in the best of circumstances. Three tips.

  1. Keep them small.
  2. Provide very explicit and strong facilitation so people know when it’s their turn to talk.
  3. Make use of all of the remote tools available—hand raising, muting, chat boxes, on-screen note taking. They all help people participate more effectively.
  1. Our board chair just isn’t good at running meetings. Can someone other than the board chair set the culture of the board meeting and perhaps even run them?

As long as your board chair is willing to have someone else manage the board meetings, you can have someone else do it. Your board chair, will of course play an important role, but he or she may be relieved to have someone else help with designing and managing the meeting practice.

You can be sure that if the meetings are terrific and exciting and fun, you’re board chair will be delighted and can take credit for passing that aspect of each meeting on to someone else.

  1. I dread our board meetings. They’re snoozers. How can I make our board meetings more effective?

This is a great, important and BIG question. I think we could and perhaps should have an entire webinar on this subject.

But here’s one juicy piece of advice.

Invite a community leader to every board meeting. Give them 10 minutes to talk about what challenges and opportunities they see in the community. This not only adds interest to board meetings, but it also introduces community leaders to your organization.

Part 2: Walking Meetings by Beth Kanter

@kanter it was a big hit -- I'm becoming a walking as work evangelist! -- @megevans @kanter it was a big hit -- I'm becoming a walking as work evangelist! -- @megevans
  1. How do you take notes during walking meetings?

Your note taking strategies will depend on the type of notes you need to take to document decisions or information shared during the meeting. For example, a 1:1 networking meeting with a colleague or your supervisor is probably more about relationship building. For these meetings, a pen and small notebook might be just the right tools to jot down decisions or ideas that you want to remember later. You can also use the audio app on your mobile phone to record audio notes or send each other texts as you walk. You can also plan out your meeting and walking route so you end up back at your office and electronic devices and use the last 10 minutes of the meeting to agree on decisions, deliverable, or take notes.

A meeting with larger number of participants requires a little bit more choreography in terms of the amount of time you have and your route. The “walking” part might be a specific discussion or brainstorm about a meeting agenda item. As the meeting moves to the takeaways or decision-making stage, your meeting group might end up back in a conference room to take notes.

  1. How do you deal with visuals and information dense meetings or the need to look up documents online?

Walking meetings aren’t something that you do for all meetings – it works better for some types of meetings than others. If your meeting absolutely requires people all staring at a screen or listening to presentations, then a walking meeting might not be the best approach. However, some organizations have done a walking meeting where they arrange to have an intern meet them in a coffee shop with a laptop with wifi and they do part of the meeting sitting down and using the screen.

While not necessarily a “walking meeting,” standing meetings are brief meetings where everyone stands to give a brief update on what they’re working on and what are the next steps. These are held in a conference room where electronic devices and information is accessible. While these are good for quick project updates, they could also be used for information dense meetings.

  1. Can you do a walking meeting with a large number of people or is there an optimum size?

Many organizational leaders use large group walking meetings as a leadership tool because it gives them a chance to informally connect with employees or others. Louis Sullivan who served as the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) in the late 1980s was famous for doing walks in Washington and the regional offices, with 10 to 150 people participating.

  1. How do you do walking meetings with people virtually present?

    Beth Kanter Beth Kanter, author of

If you have team members who work remotely, they can participate in your walking meeting if you bring them along via mobile phone. Some people use FaceTime. Some nonprofits have done 1:1 walking meetings where both people are on the phone and walking, but just not together in real space.

  1. How do you deal with people who may have physical limitations or disabilities or when it is very cold outside or bad weather or people have allergies?

Ideally, you want to walk outside and get fresh air, but that isn’t always possible especially if you live in New England or Minnesota. Some people love the cold and dress up in warm jackets and gloves, but with lots of snow and ice it could get dangerous. The alternative is to find places to walk inside. Some people pace in their office hallways or climb stairs. Others go out to indoor shopping malls or stroll in public spaces. Others just wait until Spring and make walking a seasonal activity. To accommodate allergy suffers at walking meetings, you could do an indoor route.

For those who have disabilities, you could modify the route and length of the walking meeting. If they are in a wheel chair, certainly they could accompany people who are walking, but everyone would need to be sensitive to the group pace. If someone has a disability and uses a walker or cane, again accommodating pacing and length of the walking meeting would be necessary.

Everyone walks at the same pace, regardless of whether they have a physical disability or not. One rule is to say that “slowest sets the pace.” It is also good remind people that a walking meeting isn’t about a race or performance test, walking meetings are about the group, not the individual.

For more resources on Walking Meetings see: If you’d like to connect with other nonprofits that are doing walking meetings, please join this group on Facebook.

The preceding is a guest post by Beth Kanter, the author of Beth’s Blog: How Nonprofits Can Use Social Media, one of the longest running and most popular blogs for nonprofits, and Andrea Kihlstedt, fundraising professional, co-founder of Capital Campaign Magic, and author of Andrea's Try This Blog.

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