Community association meetings can be productive, efficient and standing room-only. The secret? Planning. Both monthly board meetings and annual member meetings tend to be loosely thought out and implemented by the seat of the pants. What happens before a meeting is often as important as what happens during the meeting.
Start by asking—and answering—each of the following questions:
Why meet at all? Some groups have to come together because their governing documents require a certain number of meetings per year, yet many meetings are a waste of time. Generally, meetings should be held for decision-making, problem-solving, planning and evaluation. If the sole purpose of a meeting is to give information, a letter or e-mail may be better.
What are the desired outcomes? There’s a difference between discussing an item and adopting one. If the desired outcome is to adopt an item, arrange the meeting so there is a specific proposal, followed by discussion and a vote.
Who is responsible for each item on the agenda? Meetings run more smoothly, are more inclusive and likely will be more productive if the presiding officer gives other board members—and even residents at membership meetings— responsibilities. Allowing a board member to report on a project, for example, can help prepare that member for future leadership roles. Meanwhile, residents are more likely to feel they’re an important part of the association if they do more than sit and listen.
Have you confirmed the setting? Meetings often fail because of the atmosphere in which they occur. Rooms that are too large or small, hot, cold or noisy can affect participation. You also should test your equipment—lectern, microphone, overhead projector—to make sure it won’t malfunction.
A room’s layout can drastically alter the atmosphere too. Instead of auditorium or classroom-style seating, try an oval or circle arrangement, which can lead to more discussion. A compromise often used for board meetings is a horseshoe pattern, with the presiding officer at the open end.
Should you require agenda items in advance? Some state laws and governing documents require that business items be submitted in advance. Without question, it helps in planning your agenda to know if there will be one or 10 business items. Plus, allowing items to be brought up on the fly can lead to poorly thought-out motions. Distribute the agenda and any meeting documents in advance. In addition, make sure everyone on the agenda knows his or her role.
There’s nothing more important to a successful meeting than a well-planned agenda. At a minimum, a good agenda has a start and an end time. Some boards also like a start and end time for each individual item.
Parliamentary procedure books, including Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised (11th Edition), recognize a “standard” order of business:
Opening the meeting. Once a quorum is present, the presiding officer calls the meeting to order.
Approval of minutes. Distribute minutes to members in advance (and have extra copies on hand), so you don’t have to read them aloud.
Reports of officers, boards and standing committees. This usually is the first substantive business item. No motion is necessary following the reports unless they are to be published or if there are recommendations to be implemented.
Unfinished business. This refers to matters carried over from a previous meeting. If there is no unfinished business, skip this category altogether.
New business. Most work in a meeting is accomplished during this time slot. Members can introduce any new item for consideration. A member can introduce a new item of business by making a motion and obtaining a second.
Closing the meeting. If all items of business have been considered, your presiding officer can ask if there is any further business. If there’s no response, the meeting can be adjourned.
Of course, all the planning in the world will mean nothing if you can’t use it to run a smooth, productive meeting.
Get the timing down. Start on time, stick to the agenda and have an end point.
Preempt debate. Resolve noncontroversial items, such as approving minutes, through general or unanimous consent. Try to place a consent agenda near the start of the meeting. Any member can request that an item be removed from the consent agenda and placed on the regular agenda for consideration and vote.
Manage discussion. Set the discussion time prior to addressing potentially lengthy issues. Encourage new discussion— and prevent repetition—by asking for speakers who have not spoken. In formal procedure, no one should speak more than twice on any one issue.
Alternate pro and con. After hearing from a proponent, ask for someone to speak against a motion. If people from both sides continue to speak, pay attention to the length and quality of their remarks. When the discussion seems to have reached the point of diminishing returns, make a motion to end discussion.
Encourage and equalize participation. No one should speak a second time while there are members who wish to speak a first time. And if a member has not participated during a discussion, your presiding officer might ask him or her to share thoughts on a matter.
Use formal procedures when appropriate. Your annual meeting must be fairly formal. Observe limits on debate to keep the meeting on track and use formal votes to help avoid legal challenges.
Use informal procedures when practical. Smaller meetings can be less formal. For example, motions don’t need to be seconded, and there’s no limit to the number of times a member can speak to a question. On matters of sufficient importance, use formal procedure.
Control interruptions and digressions. A good presiding officer might acknowledge a tangential issue that has been raised but note that it should be taken up later. Similarly, if a member attempts to monopolize discussion, nicely state that other opinions are needed.
End on a positive note. Thank your volunteers. It’s a gracious gesture and is likely to result in greater enthusiasm for the association. And that in turn can lead to even better meetings.
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