27. Meetings

Meetings – the basics

Check your constitution first – it may well have something to say about meetings, for example

1. frequency (minimum)

2. quorum (minimum number present to qualify as a properly constituted meeting of the committee)

3. and maybe something about deciding and voting (for example that resolutions are carried by majority vote and whether the chair is given a ‘casting’ vote i.e. and extra vote in the event of a tie).

What are the most common meeting arrangements?

Most committees conform to a pattern of regular meetings (4 to 10 per year), generally face-to-face, usually 1 – 2 hours long following a standard agenda. However, it is worth choosing arrangements that suit your own committee. Meetings may be more or less frequent depending on the quantity of ‘business’ there is to deal with. Virtual meetings may make sense for those committees with widely dispersed members or members who otherwise find it difficult to meet at a physical location. Some prefer fewer longer meetings, others prefer frequent short meetings. You could have a mixture of these arrangements, for example one or two long meetings with a series of short frequent meetings during periods of intense activity for the committee. You could also mix face-to-face meetings with virtual meetings.

How do we run a virtual meeting?

For those committees that are not registered charities you have flexibility to choose how you wish to ‘meet’. Registered charities, however, can only count as a properly convened meetings situations where all participants can simultaneously see and hear each other (unless the Charity Commission has expressly allowed alternative arrangements either in your constitution or in a letter from the Commission). For others there are more options but consider the feasibility of these options for your committee carefully. Note that this area is developing fast and many services are beginning to overlap offering text, voice and video in one package such as skype, gmail and iChat. Whichever system you use, try practising first with a group of 2 or 3 before trying it on the whole committee:

1. by telephone, (with or without video). For voice only teleconferences it is straightforward to set up with tools such as ‘Conference UK’ or ‘Conference Genie’ or the service run by Community Network specifically aimed at voluntary organisations.

For professional standard videoconferencing you will generally need to arrange for the use of dedicated equipment (but see below for video chat). Chains such as Eye Network hire videoconferencing rooms or you could try to persuade a national or multinational company to let you use theirs. To videoconference between London and Edinburgh using Eye Network costs about £200 per hour.

2. by instant messenger (IM) such as Windows Live Messenger (formerly MSN messenger) and Yahoo Messenger, or by internet phone (VOIP ‘voice over internet protocol’). This is a feasible option and there are even services that have video as well (such as iChat, and Skype). Bear in mind that your participants will have to use the same (or at least compatible) IM/VOIP programs. iChat can manage a 4 person simultaneous video chat (many more for voice only) but is Mac only but will communicate with AIM, Google Talk on windows and via Jabber on any platform. Skype currently only features one-to-one video calling but works on Mac and PCs and can be used to set up a conference call to up to 25 participants – you can even invite mobile and land line numbers to the conference (you will need skypeout credit). The major players (Apple, Microsoft, AOL, Yahoo, Google) have partially or completely incompatible systems. There are some IM programs that have attempted to overcome this problem with varying degrees of success, notably Trillian (Windows) and Adium (Mac) and two major players, Windows Live Messenger and Yahoo Messenger are now compatible. Your fellow committee members will need recent equipment and a broadband internet connection. Do a test conference first with you participants before attempting a full meeting. Most systems work best if the person with the fastest connection initiates the session.

3. by chat room/discussion forum. It quite easy to set up a private ‘chat room’ or discussion forum online and then arrange to ‘meet’ at a certain time. There is generally no option for video. If everyone has a gmail account then using the built in chat facility is the easiest option. Otherwise the simplest chat rooms are instant and disposable – try TinyChat – simple and quick, just create the room then email the link to the participants. It even has a shared whiteboard and you can work on a document together. Others you can try are Chatzy, and Chatshack.  If you have a website it is relatively easy to add a chat room to it – try the free Java Chat.  Just remember that the quality of discussion can depend on how fast you and your colleagues can type!

A number of sites offer a combination of the above features in one product:  usually email, instant messaging or chat, somewhere to share documents and links and often a shared calendar.  Some notable examples are:

Googlegroups – and GoogleCalendar/Googledocs/Googlesites/gmail(with chat and now video chat)/Googleblog (powerful, free, but lacks integration)

Yahoogroups (free, good mix of useful features and easy to use)

Air Set (a new contender, powerful and versatile but $10 per group per month)

Hudle You can get a free (£6 admin fee) version of Huddle  from CTX .  Powerful and somewhat different from the other options here its  secure webspace where you can share and create documents, hold discussions and share a calendar.

Acrobat.com. It combines collaborative working with video conferencing, is easy to set up, cross platform and currently completely free (lacks a calendar). A maximum of 3 people can videoconference on the free version.

Finally, Facebook.  The inexorable rise of Facebook means that increasingly people are using the built in chat facility and now you can create and manage a group chat, share files and links and create events.

4. For the really adventurous the growth of virtual worlds, such as Second Life, opens up the possibility of avatars meeting up in a virtual meeting place.

Could we do it by email?

This is definitely* not acceptable for registered charities (unless you have Charity Commission permission) who must have meetings where all participants can see and hear each other – video conferencing would be acceptable but not telephone conference, email or chat/instant messaging. For non charities you must decide for yourself whether you feel that it is acceptable. It might be better to think of it as a way for the chair to gain an understanding of the committee’s view on a decision that must be made at short notice. The decision can then be formally ratified at the next meeting and the chair can show the email replies as evidence that reasonable steps were taken to sound out a sample of the committee and that the course of action taken seemed generally acceptable.

* If you are a registered charity and there are good reasons why you need to consider alternatives to face-to-face meetings you should read the Charity Commissions detailed guidance here.

How formal do meetings have to be?

Meetings vary from very informal affairs in the corner of a pub where a casual onlooker may not even realize that a meeting is taking place, to very formalized affairs with committee members taking their place round a table and the chair conducting proceedings more like a court. The format chosen should fit with the existing ethos of the committee and strike a balance between ‘task’ and ‘process’ – in other words a balance between getting things done and being an acceptable experience that keeps the committee coming back to meetings. If you are too focused on the ‘task’ aspect you may get things done but the committee may burn out or just find the meetings too uncomfortable.  Focus too much on ‘process’ and the committee will enjoy themselves so much that they will always come to meetings, but nothing may get done.

How should we run the meeting?

When you think about all that needs to happen – running meetings is more complicated than it seems, and much has been written on the subject. There are three stages;

What should we do before the meeting?

Clarify the purpose of the meeting (make decisions, get various parties talking to each other, keep in touch with fellow committee members).

Who is running the meeting (chairing, moderating, facilitating).

What are the practical arrangements (a room, chairs, refreshments).

The paperwork (notifying people of the time, place, date; distributing the agenda; recording the results of the meeting; resolutions/decisions/actions).

Click here for a check list for organising a meeting.

What should we do during the meeting?

It is generally down to one individual to chair the meeting – though in some cases, where chairing is by rotation (participants take it in turns) the chair may not know they are chairing in advance limiting their opportunity for preparation.

The chair starts the meeting when he/she is satisfied that it is properly constituted (according to the constitution or failing that to custom and practice). Generally this means that the meeting has been properly called and committee members notified and that there is a quorum (minimum number present stipulated in the constitution).

An agenda is usually followed to help those present follow events. Agenda’s may be drawn up at the beginning of the meeting, in advance or may follow a standard (agreed) format.

The chair is generally aiming to lead the committee through the agenda in the allotted time. Items may be for information, for discussion (no decision) or for decision. Important items should be taken first as there may not be time to deal with everything on the agenda. Items left at the end may be carried over to the next agenda or delegated to others to deal with (such as a sub committee). Decisions are generally seen as the most important result of the meeting as these will lead to actions. In general the principles of good decision making are;

1. Clarify – gather relevant information and clear up any misunderstanding

2. Debate – hear all sides of the argument

3. Decide – make your decision.

What needs to be done after the meeting?

What was the result of your meeting? If you made some decisions you should record them in the minutes and communicate them to the relevant individuals so that decisions are translated into action. Remember that at the next meeting there should be an item for feedback to check that the action was taken.

How should we make decisions?

Charities must generally abide by the principle of the will of the majority of those present (provided the meeting is quorate) to show that decision making is being made in a reasonable manner. If the chair is not sure of the committee’s feeling on an issue a proposal may be put to a vote – generally a show of hands or the chair may go round the room individually getting a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ from each committee member.

Some committees strive for consensus on decisions – notable Quaker committees. They will generally have evolved slightly different mechanisms to reach consensus. Reaching consensus can take longer than taking a majority view but arguably there are advantages to having unanimity on the committee.

Does everything have to go to a vote?

It should only be necessary to put decisions to a vote if it isn’t clear to the chair what the will of the committee is, or if a committee member proposes that a vote is taken and that proposal is ‘seconded’ by another committee member. Only an extremely contentious vote would be taken by ballot, generally a show of hands is sufficient.

The chair is insisting that all comments are directed through him/her. I feel that this is hindering debate. Do we have to do it that way? Another member says that every proposal must be seconded and voted on. A third keeps shouting out ‘point of order’ – what does it mean?

Curiously the detailed mechanisms of how a meeting are run are not prescribed by the regulators. Minutes are generally kept in order to record decisions and a note in the minutes to the effect that a debate or discussions took place before the decision indicates that the process is ‘reasonable’. But beyond complying with anything your constitution says about the conduct of meetings you are free to run them as you see fit.

This ‘structurelessness’ fits with the broadly consensus style adopted by most UK committees. However, there are institutions that have more formalised meeting protocols – notably parliament and trades unions. Many American committees have adopted the very formal Robert’s Rules of Order. Some committee members who may be familiar with one of these ways of doing things may assume that it is the only way of doing things. These protocols may specify in great detail how items for discussion are raised, who can address the committee, and how decision are made. However, if your constitution is silent on how meetings are conducted and you have no standing orders specifying how your meetings are conducted (the usual situation for most committees) then you are not obliged to adopt these ways of operating.

A committee members may shout ‘point of order’ if something has occurred that breaches a standing order relating to the running of the committee at that point. This is common situation in trades unions where complex standing orders govern how meetings are run – but is unusual elsewhere.

The purpose of the chair is to lead the committee through the agenda in the allotted time. They must balance allowing ample debate and discussion with the need to reach decisions, all in a limited timeframe. Chairing styles vary from ‘light touch’ to ‘heavy handed’. A heavy handed chair may insist that all comments go ‘through’ the chair i.e. that each person addresses their point to the chair. This puts the chair in control of the meeting and a good chair can use this power to make sure that everyone has a fair chance to speak. Unfortunately this power can also be used to disrupt debate so that important points get buried in a series of disconnected ‘points’ made by one committee member after another. If the chairs style isn’t appropriate – let them know or vote them out.

What is usually on a standard agenda?

The agenda should serve the purpose of the committee but there are items that tend to be common to all.

List who is present

List who has said that they will not be attending (‘apologies’)

Minutes of the last meeting (check them for accuracy)

Matters arising (pick up matters from the minutes that aren’t dealt with elsewhere on your agenda)

Activity Reports (reports about the main activities that have been taking place)

Proposals (reports making proposals, for example on future activities)

Resources Reports (money, people, other assets such as a building.)

AOB (Any other business – an opportunity to raise other issues not on the agenda)

Date and location of next meeting.

Common variations include a ‘correspondence’ for groups such as a lobby/campaign group who will be keenly interested in the responses to their lobbying. Sometimes if a major decision is looming it is better to separate the debate from the decision – having the debate at a meeting and making the decision at a subsequent meeting.

What is a ‘consent’ agenda?

This is an idea popularised in USA and is really for larger organisations with lengthy agendas mainly consisting of reports or committees burdened with items that they are required to deal with by a regulator or government body. Rather than wade through the whole agenda at the meeting the committee members read the reports before the meeting, clarifying any points directly with the relevant members of staff. At the start of the meeting it is then only necessary to pass the consent part of the agenda without discussion and move on to the rest of the agenda. The theory is that it saves time which can then be used for in depth discussion of important topics. It’s use is quite contentious and is not really suitable for small organisations. The use of consent agendas has not generally caught on in the UK.

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