The Dangerous Case of the Endless and Pointless Meeting

Nothing is more frustrating than seemingly pointless, endless, and unproductive meetings

get out of meeting freeBy Robert H. Isaacs

In a recent post, I highlighted the importance of viewing an organization or congregation’s volunteer corps as a finite resource. Today, most volunteers have multiple interests vying for their time and energy. As a result, each organization needs to value volunteers better by showing appreciation, apportioning time to be more productive, and introducing ways to be contemporary and efficient.

From a volunteer’s perspective, nothing is more frustrating than seemingly pointless, endless, and unproductive meetings.

Board members represent each organization’s highest valued group of volunteers. Many years ago a JCC Executive Director shared a timeless rule for bringing people together for any meeting, but especially Board meetings: “Do not schedule a meeting unless there is an action or decision item on the agenda.” Other key reasons to convene a group of volunteer committee or board members include the need to share important information, or to discuss an issue that requires thoughtful review and/or planning. The point: there should be a clear purpose each time a meeting is called. Meetings for the sake of meeting generally result in a perceived waste of volunteer time.

Running engaging and productive meetings is an art and most organizations do not devote the necessary time to train emerging leaders in meeting management. Here are two opposing examples of the manner in which meetings were run, each style producing varying results:

The lay chair of a congregation’s finance committee made a commitment to his committee members that each meeting would last no longer than 90 minutes and would begin and end on time. He started each meeting exactly at the called for time, usually at 7:30 p.m., no matter how many committee members were in the room. He would close his portfolio and end the meeting 90 minutes later, usually at 9 p.m. All committee members appreciated that the chair respected their time. As a result, they ultimately arrived at the meetings on time, worked diligently and smartly, eliminated side and repetitive conversations, and completed the meeting agenda by the scheduled end. The committee members served their complete terms and many moved onto other volunteer roles at the congregation. By managing the committee meetings efficiently, the chair demonstrated the value placed on the time and effort of each volunteer.

Here is an experience that was quite different. Many board members at a JCC complained about the seemingly endless meetings that usually achieved nothing of consequence. They railed about three or four hour sessions that, even with a formal agenda, lacked clear structure. Conversation was too often not on topic and meetings devolved into chaos. As a result, many concluded their efforts would be put to better use elsewhere.

Part of volunteer management is ensuring positive experiences for volunteers. Given the myriad meetings that take place at most nonprofit organizations, we offer some guidelines for making meetings more productive:

  • Schedule meetings with clear start and end times, preferably limited to 90 minutes; begin and end meetings punctually.
  • Hold meetings only when there is an action or decision item on the agenda.
  • Circulate written reports in advance of the meeting and make them part of the “consent agenda.”
  • Create agendas that allocate a realistic amount of time to each topic and stick to it. Know your group and budget time appropriately.
  • Keep the meeting on topic. If the conversation begins to move in other directions, the chair needs to act and refocus the discussion.
  • Eliminate side conversations. If members are talking to each other, they are not listening to the main discussion.
  • If you become a board or committee chair and are now in charge of running meetings, reflect on the most effective aspects of past meetings and incorporate them.

All nonprofits should include meeting management as part of an annual leadership training program. If you do not have such a program (and you should), consider adding a volunteer or professional “coach” to work with chairs to help them develop the skills to run more effective and successful meetings.

Committee meetings can be an “Achilles Heel” for many organizations and congregations. Volunteers giving hours of their time can be energized by efficient, productive meetings and, as a result, might increase the amount of time and energy that they are willing to invest. On the other hand, unproductive, never-ending meetings lead many volunteers to choose to devote their time and energy elsewhere, or worse, to walk away from volunteering all together. Successful meeting management requires planning and effort but will always pay dividends.

Robert H. Isaacs is the senior consultant and chief financial officer at the Evans Consulting Group, which helps nonprofits meet and exceed their strategic and fundraising goals. He can be reached at