How to Organize an Advocacy Meeting | Historic Preservation | Wisconsin Historical Society

Guide or Instruction

How to Organize a Successful Meeting for Your Historic Preservation Advocacy Group

How to Organize an Advocacy Meeting | Historic Preservation | Wisconsin Historical Society

If you belong to a nonprofit organization or advocacy group, you probably attend a lot of meetings. You might even be the one responsible for organizing or facilitating your group's meetings. If you design and facilitate your meeting to bring together ideas and minds, you can foster a lively and productive discussion that leads to action and moves your group forward toward its goals. The strategies described in this article can help you strengthen the role of meetings in your group.

Use Meetings to Accomplish Specific Tasks

Too often, nonprofit group meetings proceed as a series of reports that deaden active participation. The attendees assume your group is meeting because you're required to meet, not because you have something specific to accomplish. But your meetings don't have to be dull and meaningless. You can use your meetings as opportunities to accomplish specific tasks such as the following:

  • Solve problems
  • Invigorate your board, staff, and volunteers
  • Serve as the official venue for making group decisions
  • Provide clarity to all attendees about critical issues
  • Offer a forum for airing concerns and misunderstandings

If you have a board, your board meetings will demonstrate that your board members are adhering to their legal responsibilities — especially the duty of care. If your group is faced with a large or complex issue, you may consider organizing a retreat to tackle the problem.

Focus the Agenda on a Big-Picture Issue

Typical meeting agendas are repetitive, focusing on the reporting of data rather than big-picture problem-solving. They do not prioritize information or foster strategic thinking. The agenda items appear as a list of reports: the executive director's report, committee reports, cash flow reports, reports on potential board candidates, and so on.

A better meeting agenda focuses on a big-picture issue that excites attendees. This kind of agenda relates directly to your group's mission. Your meeting should focus on the future — your group's plans — not on what has happened in the past (your reports). Meeting attendees can circulate their reports via email or regular mail a week in advance of your meeting. Print versions can be provided for reference at the meeting.

Here is an example of a more dynamic and productive meeting: Someone in your group wants to discuss a new opportunity, such as the possibility of sharing office space and equipment with another nonprofit organization. Rather than working your way through administration or finance committee reports, you can make this opportunity the central theme of an entire meeting. Your group can think of the meeting as a working session where the group will evaluate the plusses and minuses of a potential move and partnership. The attendees should be primed to engage in the discussion by reading up on committee activity in advance. The question "how much would we save?" can be tied to the question "how much we currently spend on overhead expenses?" In this scenario, you could invite your potential partner's executive director or board chair to provide insights and energy to the discussion.

By creating a meeting agenda that focuses on a central issue related to the group's future plans, you will foster teamwork and a sense of progress. This is especially true when the issue is tied to a strategic plan goal. The process of working through a problem this way strengthens your team. Even if your group ultimately decides against the option, your members will feel confident that they work well together as a team. No one will feel defeated, dismissed, or consider the time wasted.

If your group has completed a strategic plan, your meeting agendas should be tied to one or more goals in that plan. Your board can work together on an annual agenda at the beginning of each year that spotlights key areas of your plan. If you have an executive director, he or she may schedule special guests for meetings throughout the year. Guests bring new energy and expertise to problem-solving. With regularly scheduled special guests, your meeting schedule can turn into a program rather than a series of ad hoc sessions.

Create an Inspiring Environment

When you are planning a meeting, take the time to create an inspiring environment. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Choose an inspiring meeting location. Historic preservation is all about the value of place. Your choice of meeting site could be inspirational if the location is an example of a preservation success story. You can also use your meeting plans to build alliances. For example, if a local company has done a great job of adaptively reusing a historic building, schedule a meeting in the company's conference room — and include a tour of the facility as part of your meeting.
  • Provide name tags for everyone.When your group is used to seeing the same faces at every meeting, you may forget to use name tags. But most board members have busy lives and meet with dozens of familiar and unfamiliar people through the year. Name tags take away the pressure to remember names, and they help ease people into conversations more quickly. Name tags are especially important when guests or potential board members attend your meetings.
  • Attend to creature comforts. Make sure you are able to adjust the temperature in your meeting room so it is comfortable during all seasons. Check on the availability of chairs and ensure the room will not be overcrowded. It may be a good idea to provide snacks and beverages at your meetings, although some meeting experts think these items distract from the flow of conversation.
  • Foster good feng shui. Some meeting planners discourage the use of traditional long conference tables because the attendees must sit far apart from one another. Some planners advocate no table meetings with attendees seated in chairs arranged in a circle. This format works for brainstorming sessions that do not require a lot of note taking. If you use this format, someone should take notes for the group on a large pad that is visible to all attendees.
  • Place an acronym chart on the wall. If your group is working through an issue that involves agencies, departments, programs, and other entities that are often referred to by acronyms, post the acronyms in a visible location in the meeting space.

Steer the Group to a Productive Discussion

When you are facilitating a meeting, you are in a position to steer the group toward a productive outcome. At times, you may need to play the part of stage director to keep the group on track. Follow these tips to make your meetings worthwhile to all the attendees:

  • Ensure that everyone contributes. Every meeting attendee is invested in the outcome, so every attendee should contribute to the outcome by sharing his or her ideas and problem-solving skills. As the meeting facilitator, you should ensure that each attendee is heard. You may need to reach out to a quiet attendee and ask that person for feedback. Listen for silences, and curb the chatter of over-contributors who frequently interrupt other speakers.
  • Allow dumb questions. Everyone in your group should feel comfortable enough to ask questions, even if the questions reflect a participant's ignorance. As facilitator, you should strive to clear up misunderstandings quickly and without judgment.
  • Encourage respectful disagreements and dissent. Every group needs some devil's advocates. A group that never disagrees is most likely lacking diverse perspectives and backgrounds. Even if everyone in your group agrees with a decision, due diligence requires you to consider other options and any potential problems with your choice. Sometimes a question that sounds like dissent is simply a request for more information. These questions often help dissect a decision that sounds great on the surface but might result in serious downsides in the future.
  • Stop side conversations. It's natural that some members of your group will be friends and enjoy conversing with each other throughout a meeting. These conversations may or may not be related to the agenda. Meeting participants should share their comments with the whole group or reserve their comments for private discussion after the meeting. As the meeting facilitator, you have the right and the responsibility to politely but immediately curb these side conversations.
  • Control electronic distractions. During a meeting, the participants should be focused on their responsibility to the group. They should not be texting, browsing the web, or talking on their cell phone. As facilitator, you should step in to control these distractions. At the beginning of the meeting, ask everyone to put away their electronic devices. Tell them to leave the room if they must take an emergency call.
  • Schedule time for socializing. A business-only meeting wastes an excellent opportunity for relationship building. Plan a break during your meeting, or an opportunity for gathering before or after your work session. For example, meetings held later in the day could transition into a happy hour gathering. The regular participants can take turns buying the first round of drinks.
  • Adjourn on time or decide together to extend your meeting. Announce your meeting start and end times in advance, and stick to your schedule. Some meeting planners schedule interim times to discuss each agenda item. For example, if three issues will be discussed, the discussion of item 1 may begin ten minutes after the scheduled meeting start, item 2 might begin thirty minutes after the scheduled meeting start, and item 3 might begin forty minutes after the meeting begins. Don't continue on after the meeting's scheduled end time. If you find that certain items will require more discussion, prompt your group to vote to extend the meeting for a set number of minutes.
  • Circulate occasional meeting evaluations. From time to time, solicit feedback from meeting participants. You should find out if the participants feel engaged. You can also ask them if the meeting time might be better spent in a different way.

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