The Agenda: Building for a Successful Meeting

Non-profit organizations are known for the plethora of meetings that are conducted on various levels both internally and externally. There are meetings involving volunteer leaders such as, executive committees, board meetings, committee meetings, special meetings to deal with emergencies, and many other meetings dealing with specific issues. There are also meetings involving the professional staff members of the agency and these include general staff members and all kinds of planning meetings to insure the services are delivered to the community in the most effective and efficient manner. Of course, there are also those gatherings that involve members of the community-at-large in looking at present and emerging needs to make sure there is open communication between the provider of services and the recipients of those services.

I would like to begin with a discussion of building an agenda for a meeting of a committee of the board of directors of an agency. If the board of directors is the “backbone” of the non-profit organization than the committees of the board are the links that hold the system in place. Committee meetings provide the way to engage volunteer leaders in the organization and to bring new leadership into the system on an ongoing basis.

Meetings are an essential instrument for building and strengthening the non-profit organization and when they are well organized the participants feel their time has been well used. Since we depend on volunteer leadership it is essential that they become engaged and committed to the purposes and goals of the organization. When their time is used well then they feel their investment in the organization’s “business” is important and they become more involved over time. When volunteer leadership feels their time has been wasted and has not been used in a worthwhile way then they will not want to participate in the organization’s activities and will inevitable dropout.

When an agenda is developed for a meeting it is an opportunity to bring people closer to the organization and strengthen their connection.

What goes into building an agenda and how should it be structured to insure the success of the meeting and strengthen the organization?

An agenda for a meeting should provide a structure for the items and subjects that need to be discussed. However, it should also represent the interests of the participants in the meeting. It should not only reflect what the chairperson wants to accomplish but also what will keep the members engaged in the discussion. In addition, it should provide an opportunity for the participants to discuss the issues and share in the decision-making process.

A chairperson who wants to be attuned to the participants’ interest will speak with the members prior to deciding on the agenda. It is often helpful to speak with a number of the people and discuss what items they would like to see on the agenda. For example, if individuals are working on projects then it might be appropriate for one or more people to provide a progress. In some instances a report might require an approval of a recommendation and in that case it would be necessary to have a discussion and then canvass the members to see whether there is agreement on the recommended action. Depending on the culture of the organization it may be necessary to have a vote or to work on the basis of a consensus among the members.

When a committee member or board member is approached for their ideas about items to be placed on the agenda then they feel included in the process and they have a sense of being valued. This is very important not only for the work of the group but also for the value the organization places on the input of its members. Thus, the building of an agenda can serve a dual purpose of strengthening the committee’s work and in establishing the organization’s culture.

The content of the agenda is one aspect, and the order in which the items are placed on the agenda has implications for the committee process. There should be a balance between most important and least important items and also between reporting which involves one person talking to the group and a group discussion that involves the members. In general the chairperson would open the meeting by reporting on what has transpired since the last meeting and perhaps asking for reports and some discussion as referred to above. This balance keeps the flow of the meeting moving along and allows for the members participation throughout the meeting.

Each meeting should have one central or core item that is the focus of the meeting and involves the members. It might be one of the items in a report or it could be a new issue that is introduced and discussed for the first time. At the close of the discussion of a new issue there might be an exchange about the need for further follow up and who on the committee will take responsibility for looking into the issue and reporting at the next meeting. The continual cycle of items for discussion and involvement of the members is what strengthens their investment in the committee process and in the organization.

In Jewish organizations it would be appropriate to begin the meeting with a short “Dvar Torah” or reflection on Jewish thoughts or values. It is common to relate to the work of the committee and to connect what the organization or the committee is doing to Jewish ideals. This reinforces the meaning of being a “Jewish organization” and the added value to providing services to assist people and enhance their lives. It is something that each member of the committee can take responsibility for and it adds a nice touch to the education of volunteer leaders by volunteer lay leaders.

Thinking about how agendas are developed and structured can add an extra dimension to the committee meeting and will not only strengthen the members’ involvement in the meetings and the work of the committee but also set a new standard for the way committees of the board work in the organization. It is well worth the effort and the investment. The volunteer leaders will be more committed because they will have renewed sense of the value placed on their participation.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Leadership and Philanthropy Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening non-profit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.