5 Practical Tips for Managing Volunteer Meetings

There is an art and a science to maximizing productivity in the small-meeting setting—especially when the attendees are volunteers.

It’s hard enough to keep staff meetings on track—and those people all work for the same boss. When you’re running a committee or board meeting comprised of volunteers, that hard job just gets a lot harder.

Here is some practical advice to make it just a bit easier, learned from the combined experience of Rebecca DeVivo, MPH, MSW, associate executive director, education, American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation; Ed Dellert, RN, MBA, CHCP, chief policy and learning officer, American Society for Gastrointestinal Endoscopy; and Suzanne Ziemnik, M.Ed, vice president, continuing professional development, American Society for Clinical Pathology. The panelists shared their insights during a session at the Alliance for Continuing Education in the Health Profession’s 2017 annual conference, held in San Francisco in January. 

1. Logistics matter.
Of course they do—any meeting professional knows that! But let’s drill down a bit:

• If the meeting is being held in a restaurant, be sure to check the layout of the room before your committee members arrive. “Sometimes restaurants will have you set up in a weird way,” said DeVivo. Also, make sure the room isn’t set with long, skinny tables that aren’t conducive to group discussion.

• Make tent cards for each participant, and put them where you want them. This gives you control over the group dynamics, said DeVivo. “You do not want to put people who tend to be argumentative facing each other, because they will argue. Put them next to each other instead.”

• Put the chairperson of the meeting in the “power seat”—and that seat is often going to be in the middle, not at the table’s end.

• Mix talkers with quieter folks, and men with women, older people with younger, etc., so the table is balanced.

2. Agendas also matter—a lot.
The panelists agreed that you, or someone in your organization, should draw up an initial agenda and hand it to the chairperson to review. If your organization is very member-driven, it may be left to the chairperson to set the agenda, but the panelists and most of the audience seemed to think that could lead to problems. Some things to consider when drawing up an agenda:

• Set time limits for each item, and put them in a logical order. Don’t forget to set the tone as well, they said. “Set goals that are short and to the point,” said Dellert.

• Give them any necessary background materials far enough in advance that they have time to review them. Try to keep these materials as user-friendly as possible—can you summarize the main points in a short video that’s fun to watch instead of asking them to download a 20-page white paper?

• Do a “dress rehearsal.” Ziemnik said that she and her staff never go into a committee meeting cold. The staff liaison and the committee chair meet ahead of time—usually over dinner the night before the meeting—and talk about the agenda items, “and about how we would handle any red flags or landmines that could come up.”

3. Groom your chairperson for the job of chairing the meeting
Hopefully your committee’s chairperson is well-suited for the job personality-wise—take-charge taskmasters generally make good chairs, they said—but it doesn’t hurt to remind them that their job includes remaining impartial, keeping the conversation flowing by not letting any one person dominate and soliciting participation from the quieter members. “The staff and chairs are key to keeping it on track, succinct, and focused,” said Dellert. 

They also should be alert to keeping participants from getting sucked into side conversations, and to not “reward” latecomers by repeating everything they missed when they do show up. At the meeting’s end, they should summarize key decision points and action items, the panelists said.

4. Start planning now for the future.
Remember that something that’s a non-starter now may be greeted by a future board or committee with open arms. “Old ideas may become new again,” said DeVivo. It’s important to build in processes for institutional memory so those ideas don’t get lost over time. 

Don’t forget to groom your future board members, who today are young volunteers. “Give them opportunities to be visible and successful,” said DeVivo. And be sure to manage the transition when the baton is handed off to a new chairperson, said Ziemnik. Have the outgoing chair work with the incoming chair to share what worked, and what didn’t, and what they can expect. 

5. Know—and respect—the boundaries.
Some organizational cultures may encourage hob-nobbing between staff and volunteers, while others want a clear line of separation when it comes to socializing. Know your organizational culture and your boundaries, said DeVivo. A few areas to set those boundaries around include:

• Do you give out your cellphone number to your volunteers? Is it OK for them to call you outside of work hours?

• Do you connect with them on social media?

• Is it OK to head over to the bar for a nightcap with them after the dinner meeting is concluded?

• Is it OK to drink alcohol in their presence, period?

• Do you share industry gossip with them, and vice versa?

It’s important to have those conversations ahead of time, said Ziemnik. “You want to avoid having to have that difficult conversation when someone’s behavior is inappropriate.” For some organizations, that means staying in work mode at all times, not being discourteous or unfriendly, but also just saying no to that nightcap. Ziemnik added that it is generally considered inappropriate to gossip with volunteers about what’s going on at your organization or with your staff. “That could lead to legal issues,” she said.

 Even if your organization culture allows for socializing with committee members, keep it professional, added DeVivo. “Volunteers can be fun to hang out with, but never forget that you are on the job and you have to be professional, even if they’re not.”

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