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3 min read

How Meetings can Engage Rather than Enrage Volunteers

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We engage in many different kinds of “meetings”—including, “meeting new people” and “meeting goals”—but traditional meetings often get a bad rap. With so many ineffective, inefficient, or unnecessary meetings, it’s no wonder volunteers have little patience for meetings. The irony is that, while volunteers generally don’t seek out meetings, they do seek ways to connect with and be part of high-functioning teams. Yet, teams generally require meetings of some sort. So, the challenge is to nurture productive team culture through well-run meetings that engage rather than enrage volunteers.

Here are a few tips for leveraging meetings to engage and empower volunteers when you are facilitating them or equipping volunteer leaders to do so, whether meeting in person or online.

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Agendas are crucial. Ensure the leader sets an agenda with a stated purpose for the meeting and shares the purpose and agenda with all participants in advance.

Be strategic about the attendance list. Determining who should attend meetings is similar to deciding whom to invite onto a team. Consider who is responsible for the decisions being made at this meeting, who has valuable skills or input into the decisions, and whose participation may mitigate or avoid challenges in the future. Remember that today’s volunteers do not want to be segregated from staff; rather they seek to collaborate. Integrating staff and volunteers at meetings is important to successful collaboration.

Honor the schedule. Set the tone for efficiency and demonstrate that you value people’s time by starting and ending on time.

Engage skilled facilitators. Be sure to clearly identify in advance who is running the meeting. For self-directed volunteer teams, the meeting should be facilitated by a volunteer leader, not staff. If the meeting or project is a collaboration between staff and volunteers, then consider having co-facilitators or negotiate in advance who is running the meeting so no one—including meeting participants—is confused or surprised.

Be aware of body language. If volunteers are truly engaged as partners, be sure that all staff members are aware of—and avoid—body language that implies that they have final authority. If meeting attendees continually look to one staff member for approval, that staff person should use phrases such as, “This isn’t my decision, it’s the team’s decision,” or “You don’t need my permission, this is within your authority to decide.” If all else fails (old habits can be hard to break), the staff member in question should leave the room and simply request that the team report back with its decision.

Conclude with action items and next steps. Before concluding any meeting, develop and review action items or next steps and be sure to identify the responsible person and deadline for each. The names you attach to the action items are a reflection of the relationship and level of authority you are nurturing with volunteers. If your list only includes staff names, then the volunteers may be nothing more than stamps of approval. If the list only includes volunteers’ names, it could imply that the team is truly a self-directed volunteer team or that staff are not stepping up to the plate to be true partners with volunteers.

Use meetings to nurture community. Though meetings are not social events, they can be helpful in building a sense of community by incorporating brief check-ins at the start or reflection opportunities at the end. For example, by opening with a prompt for each attendee to answer either live or via online chat, you invite all participants to share their voice, which sets a tone for everyone to contribute. This sets the tone for an engaging conversation, which should be the goal of most meetings.

Be sure a meeting is necessary. Of course, if you begin developing the agenda and realize that all this information can be delivered just as effectively via email, then simply cancel the meeting. The way to ensure you engage—rather than enrage—is to respect everyone’s time and only hold meetings when there is actual business to address.

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