Advancing Philanthropy

Meetings and Events: 4 Questions to Design and Lead Inclusive, Interactive Meetings—Virtual or In-Person

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virtual meeting with people in a board room looking at a monitor

Meetings are challenging. In training leaders and participants to run better meetings, we hear about the many challenges that prevent meetings from being effective.

How many of these do you encounter frequently in meetings you attend or lead?

  • No clear agenda
  • No clear timing for different items
  • Having to attend too many meetings daily
  • Attendees don’t come prepared
  • Participants (or leaders) don’t feel heard
  • Participants aren’t engaged
  • There are conflicts among the group
  • The group is not clear on next steps

You may be saying, “All of them!” And while virtual meetings open up new possibilities for gathering across geography, they have added new levels of challenge. Many of us have heard about Zoom fatigue. But it’s not just Zoom fatigue! Virtual participants report difficulty reading participants’ expressions, confusion around meeting etiquette, and missing the “pre-meeting” time of physically walking into a room, saying hello, and connecting.

While all of that may be discouraging, there are steps you can take to build better meetings. Here are four questions that can help you design and lead more inclusive, interactive meetings:

  1. Why are we meeting?
  2. What’s in the room?
  3. Who’s in the room?
  4. Where do we want to go?

1. Why are we meeting?

In The Art of Gathering, Priya Parker says something profound that should influence the way we plan meetings: Every gathering should start with, “Why are we gathering?”

The answer is not a functional one. In other words, the reason we gather for a development team meeting is not because the development team meets every Wednesday and today is Wednesday, so here we are!

Or the reason that my family gathers for breakfast every morning isn’t because we need to get some food in our stomachs, and we might as well do it together!

But rather, any gathering, a meal, a party, a board, or staff meeting, needs to start with a clear purpose: Why are we here?

When we start to think like that, it changes our perspective and focus:

  • The Development Team is meeting because our goal is to serve expanded community needs this year, which can only happen through increasing our fundraising by coordinating our efforts.
  • We’re gathering at the breakfast table to express our love and support for each other before we head off to work and school.

Try this:

For a recurring meeting, take a few minutes to all come to an agreement about why the group is meeting. Give participants a few minutes to write a few sentences in response to this question on their own, and then share responses with one another. In listening to one another, group members may find themselves energized by getting to the deeper purpose of the meeting.

2. What’s in the room now?

We work with many nonprofit organizations; the people of these organizations believe in the mission, all working towards the greater good in one capacity or another. Inevitably, they carry the emotional bits with them, which can wear over time and is further exacerbated by the exhaustion of the pandemic.

The collective trauma and uncertainty that we are experiencing is the ‘elephant in the room’ in any meeting you design and lead.

This is especially true in terms of the movement for racial justice. We hear some hope and also a sense of exhaustion and awareness of how far we have to go, as well as disillusionment around whether things are actually changing.

A few years ago, I led a planning retreat for a nonprofit team. Things got emotional, and we were able to move through the emotion to get to a good place and come to an agreement about next steps.

Afterward, one of the participants came up to me and asked, “Aren’t you scared when someone becomes emotional in one of your meeting—that you might not know what to do?”

I responded that I don’t feel fearful when strong emotions come up in groups, but rather, that’s when things get interesting. There is energy locked up in those strong emotions. Only by acknowledging and releasing the energy of strong emotions can groups become productive.

In these times, your meeting participants are almost certainly bringing strong emotions.

Try this:

  1. Find out what’s there. As a leader or participant, you may need to have more one-on-one conversations with staff or board members to find out how they are and how the organization can support them. You may need to lead with more compassion now.
  2. Pay attention to the opening of the meeting. Openings are always important. In virtual meetings, they are more important than ever. Consider: How do you want to welcome people? What tone are you setting? How are people seen—with their struggles and triumphs? Encourage meeting participants to take a minute to breathe before getting into the content of the conversation.
  3. Slow everything down. Now that we’re virtual, we all save some time by not having to commute. We can take extra time to think together and make decisions!
  4. Use meeting agreements. Meeting agreements are a terrific way to create a positive vision for how we want to be together.

3. Who’s in the room?

Hopefully you have a rainbow of human diversity in meetings you design and lead. This might include people of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds, people with multiple learning styles, and people with different participation or leadership styles.
Our blind spot as meeting leaders is that, unless we plan consciously, we design meetings for someone who learns like us, has similar life experiences and racial background, and processes information the same way as we do.

I direct the Cal State University East Bay Nonprofit Management Certificate program and teach Strategic Planning and Board Development for the program. Sixty to eighty percent of our students are Black, Latinx, Indigenous, or Asian-Pacific Islander. As a white facilitator and trainer, I carefully consider the environment I need to build in my courses so that each person feels a sense of belonging.

One of the issues that we discuss in my Board Development course is national board composition statistics. Given that many nonprofits serve BIPOC people, my students find it dispiriting to hear that 83% of board chairs are white, and that “Boards may be getting slightly more diverse, but they are far from representing the communities they serve” (from the Leading with Intent 2021 study).

Meetings and discussions often avoid the topic of race because it’s an uncomfortable subject. White people may feel that we are calling people out or stepping on toes. But by not mentioning race in these discussions, it causes harm. One of the best ways to honor and affirm Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) colleagues in conversations is to be open, direct and courageous in talking about race and equity.

The collective trauma and uncertainty that we are experiencing is the ‘elephant in the room’ in any meeting you design and lead.

White leaders building anti-racist organizations need to create environments where everyone feels welcomed, seen, and supported. White leaders need to decenter themselves and open up more space for people who are not white to talk about their lived experiences.

Otherwise, the default racial context for conversations is whiteness. BIPOC’s lived experience of racism continues to be invisible and suppressed.

Try this:

  • Be intentional about providing opportunities to engage in race and equity issues.
  • Give participants the tools they need to productively engage in racial dialogue. If you are not used to talking about race, what learning do you need to do to lead these conversations?
  • Make sure leaders have the tools they need to facilitate these dialogues. This may mean bringing in an outside facilitator or trainer to build comfort talking about race.
  • Stay present in the dialogue, monitoring it regularly and intervening when necessary.

4. Where do we want to go?

Meetings need to include clarity about what kind of conversation you are having together. Is this a conversation about surviving or thriving?

Surviving conversations might explore questions like:

  • What do we need to talk about to run our daily operations or pivot our program?
  • What financial projections need to be discussed to make decisions?
  • How/are we planning for returning to the office and in-person work?

Thriving conversations focus on questions such as:

  • What’s our vision for our work long term?
  • What new needs or questions have emerged that deepen or alter that vision?

Try this:

Consider: What percentage of your current meetings are about surviving and what percentage are about thriving. Does that balance need to be adjusted so leaders are focused on the short and long term?

Further Reading

On Meeting Agreements:

Why Every Meeting Should Mention Racial Equity:

On Organizational Vision:

On Meeting Openings:

Renee Rubin Ross, Ph.D.Renee Rubin Ross, Ph.D., founder of The Ross Collective, designs and leads inclusive, strategic planning and governance processes for nonprofits and funders. Get free content on nonprofit strategy, racial equity, and leadership by subscribing to The Ross Collective newsletter.

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