Procedures for Chairing Effective Meetings
Table of Contents
Meetings are an essential part of conducting the business of your board or organization. They bring together members of your group to discuss ideas and make decisions for the successful operation of programs and initiatives. However, meetings can also be a source of frustration if participants talk off topic, monopolize discussion time, have difficulty making decisions, or fail to respect the contributions of others. Most organizations reach a point where it becomes practical to adopt a set of agreed upon rules and procedures to make sure their meetings run as effectively and efficiently as possible.
This factsheet explains basic meeting procedures and rules and how to apply them. It helps you determine what sorts of procedures will work best for your board or organization, and how to adapt meeting rules to best achieve your group's purpose and goals.
As Chair of the meeting, you shoulder the responsibility to ensure that:
Meeting participants want their opinions and ideas heard and their time used wisely. It is important that you, as Chair, remain neutral and focus on meeting management. At each meeting, you will use your facilitation skills to make sure meeting participants:
A set of meeting rules or guidelines, more formally referred to as parliamentary procedures, will assist you in providing a consistent framework to reduce confusion, allowing everyone to express their viewpoints, and ensuring democratic decision making.
Reflect: What are some of the challenges you face as Chair of your group? When you meet, what sorts of things impede meeting progress? Do you achieve the results you want? What current meeting behaviours are effective?
Parliamentary procedure simply refers to the practices and rules that you, as Chair, use in meetings to ensure business is conducted in an orderly way and that everyone has a fair and equal chance to be heard.
One of the most well-known and widely-used parliamentary procedure books for meetings is Robert's Rules of Order, first published in 1876! Henry Robert, an officer in the Army, was embarrassed by his inability to effectively chair a public meeting that regrettably erupted into chaos. He wrote a set of general meeting rules that anyone could apply to make their meetings orderly and productive.
Your board or organization probably uses some of his rules now, such as:
Reflect: Does your board or organization use any of these rules? What other rules does your board or organization use? Are your rules written down and followed at every meeting? Are some of your rules unwritten or informally understood as just being courteous?
Coming in at just over 800 pages, Robert's Rules of Order is not practical for most Chairs and volunteer boards to implement. However, Robert's basic principles for having good meetings are quite simple and can be applied by any organization. A good meeting:
Ideally, you want to spend as much time as possible dealing with the business of the board, not on applying many complex and formal parliamentary rules. It's a bit like playing a game. You want to have fun participating in the game, not learning a set of complicated rules or quibbling about their interpretation.
"Robert's Rules is about conducting good meetings without any more formality than is absolutely necessary to protect the rights of everyone and keep things orderly. The rules are there to help, not hinder, business." In fact, General Robert once said, "Never be technical or more strict than is absolutely necessary for the good of the meeting." C. Alan Jennings, Professional Registered Parliamentarian
Reflect: Do you think your board's business is carried out in an orderly and systematic fashion? Does everyone have equal opportunity to speak or share their viewpoints? Do some members dominate the discussions? Can you identify any new rules that might make things better at your meetings?
What sorts of books and resources written about parliamentary procedures are for very formal and structured circumstances, such as parliament or municipal meetings, where there are large numbers of people involved and many contentious issues. Often small groups and volunteer boards find that they can get their business done without the need for a lot of rules and formalities.
Finding the right balance of rules and procedures for your board or committee will initially be by trial and error. If your meetings are becoming unruly or disorderly, or people are not getting time to speak, it's a sign that more rules are needed. If you find you are spending too much time debating interpretation of the rules, or making decisions more complicated than they need to be, perhaps you have too many rules.
" Board meetings aren't like town meetings at all. Board meetings require greater flexibility and informality than mass meetings. Members speak when they have something to say, rather than waiting to be recognized by the Chair. Motions are flung out onto the table without invitation, and most procedural steps that are rigidly enforced at town meeting are given short shift at a board meeting." Paul Gillies
Making decisions about what the organization should or shouldn't do is the ultimate purpose of the board. Two common approaches to decision making are compared in this chart. Both approaches are valid, but one may work better for your board than the other. You might even modify the approaches to come up with an effective adaptation. The main goal is twofold:
* Simplified rules are presented here. For more detailed and comprehensive parliamentary rules, you may consult Robert's Rules of Order, or Herb and Susan Perry's Call to Order.
Chairing a meeting for the first time may feel onerous. Here are eight common meeting procedures to get you started. The idea is to implement only the ones you think your group needs. Start with a few basic rules. Monitor and evaluate how successful they prove to be in your meetings. Adjust as required by adding more rules, or removing some. The following chart outlines the conditions for an effective meeting and the ways that this can be accomplished.
Condition(s) for an Effective Meeting:
Set Clear Roles if ...
How to Accomplish It
Your board or organization may benefit from assigning these four key roles:
All other board members are expected to attend meetings, put forth ideas, debate and discuss, and make motions or decisions. Some of these people may take on additional roles, such as heading up a fundraising committee, volunteer recruitment, social media, marketing or research.
Have a Basic Agenda and Take Minutes if ...
How to Accomplish It
A clear agenda makes the Chair's job easier and keeps everyone on track. (See Appendix A for a sample agenda). Find a template that works for your group and stick with it. Major headings will remain the same for each meeting, only the topics of discussion will change. Indicate who is speaking about each agenda item and assign an estimated time limit (e.g. 5 minutes, 30 minutes). Circulate the agenda a few days in advance of the meeting so members can prepare.
A Recorder or Secretary should take meeting minutes. Minutes do not have to be elaborate, but should succinctly state the decisions that were made at the meeting and the rationale for making those decisions. Minutes should not be a verbatim record of everything that was said. These minutes become a valuable reference for future groups who can understand a sequence of events leading to an action, refer to decisions made, or determine appropriate next steps. This avoids back tracking and duplicating efforts. Circulate the minutes to board members a few days after the meeting so everyone has the same understanding of meeting outcomes, and inaccuracies can be identified and corrected. Official minutes should be stored in a central location.
Have a Quorum if ...
How to Accomplish It
When boards and organizations use voting as a method of decision making, they must have a minimum number of voting members, as stated in their constitution and/or by-laws, to be legitimate.
It is always advisable to have as many members as possible participating in any decision making process. If you don't have quorum, it is best not to make final decisions. You may choose to adjourn the meeting or proceed with the agenda, deferring any decisions until more members are present.
Avoid discrepancy by ensuring that the number of voting members required for quorum is written in your constitution, by-laws or meeting rules.
Make a Motion if ...
How to Accomplish It
A motion is made by a board member who puts forward an idea or proposal for the other members to consider and take action on. For example, "I move that we include chickens in our How-to-Raise factsheets." Some groups use motions for all their business, while other groups choose to make motions only on critical or key issues. Still other groups don't use motions at all. Whether your board chooses to use motions or not, the goal is to present clear and focussed ideas to members so they can deliberate and decide. (See the Two Styles of Decision Making Chart).
A benefit of making a formal motion is that it helps the board clearly articulate what the discussion is about and to pinpoint exactly what the required action is. This becomes a concise and well-worded directive to include in the meeting minutes.
Vote or Decide if ...
How to Accomplish It
After a motion is made and discussed, board members must decide if they want to accept it or take action on it. Acceptable ways of showing support for an idea are:
In some circumstances, you may allow e-mail voting. For example,
if heavy rains destroy your organization's experimental seed plot
two days before it goes on exhibit, you need board approval to replace
it right away and don't have time to call a meeting.
Your board will have to decide if the Chair is allowed to vote or not. Some organizations allow the Chair to vote:
Begin and Adjourn the Meeting on time if ...
How to Accomplish It
It is good practice for the Chair to 'call the meeting to order' and indicate the starting time for the meeting records. Similarly, at the end of the meeting, the Chair, or another member, can ask for the meeting to be adjourned. The time of adjournment is recorded.
Meetings can be adjourned before all business on the agenda is covered, but a plan should be in place to address the remaining items.
Punctuality is appreciated by meeting participants. Chairs who start and end meetings on schedule show that they value other people's time and they demonstrate that punctuality is the expected standard of conduct.
Postpone the Decision if ...
How to Accomplish It
If the group cannot come to a decision because, for example, it doesn't have the required information to vote, the issues can be postponed to the next meeting, when the information is available. Postponing, or tabling as it is sometimes called, should not be used as a stalling or avoidance tactic.
Some groups require a formal motion to postpone the decision, while other groups decide to do it by general consensus or by the suggestion of the Chair.
Receive and Adopt Reports if ...
How to Accomplish It
Sometimes committees or members submit reports to the board for acceptance or adoption. For example, the Treasurer may present monthly or quarterly financial reports asking for a motion to pay the bills. Or, the volunteer recruitment committee might submit a report making recommendations to recruit new members. By formally 'receiving' and/or 'adopting' the reports, the board is acknowledging the work in the reports and requiring members to read and understand the contents so they can make an informed decision.
The board may vote to 'receive' a report, but not commit to any recommendations in it. Alternatively, the board may 'adopt' the report which implies the recommendations will be acted on.
Reflect: Consider your own group and its meetings. What procedures could you implement?
Your skills as meeting Chair will improve as you learn, practice, and adapt the rules and procedures that will achieve the best results for your group. It can be personally rewarding to Chair a successful meeting!
Once you've found a set of rules and procedures that really work for your board, write them down! Include them in your governance documents, such as the constitution, by-laws, or policies and procedures. Don't waste precious time trying to recall "what did we do last time this happened?" You can refer to your organization's rules for clear direction, and they will be appreciated by your successor as well as the Vice Chair who might have to fill in for you from time to time.
Finally, no matter how good your meeting rules and procedures are, they need to be reviewed from time to time. You can adapt your meeting procedures so the best outcomes can be achieved.
A few practical procedures and some helpful rules will result in less confusion, more constructive dialogue and better decisions. Your job as Chair will be much easier and your group will experience greater success at meetings.
American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. (no date). How to Chair a Meeting.
ArtsBC. (2011). Boards and Governance.
Baker, Darlene, Z. (2014). 4-H Volunteer Leaders' Series Conducting Meetings
Basic Parliamentary Procedure. University of Arkansas, Division of Agriculture.
Community Literacy of Ontario. (2013). Effective Board Meetings.
Gillies, Paul. (no date). Born to Chair: An Introduction to the Science and Art Of Chairing a Board Meeting. The Vermont Institute for Government.
Jennings, C. Alan. (2012). Robert's Rules for Dummies. Second Edition. New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Leahy, Susan. (2010). Robert's Rules of Order - Mastering the 3 Most Important Motions.
Perry, Herb and Susan Perry. (2004). Call to Order. Second Edition. Kanata, Ontario: Big Bay Publishing.
Perry, Herb and Susan Perry. (2014). The Art of Chairing How to be an Effective Volunteer Leader of a Non-Profit Organization. Kanata, Ontario: Big Bay Publishing.
University of Arkansas, Division of Agriculture. (2014). Simplified Handbook of Parliamentary Procedure.
Use this template to jot down some rough ideas about the kind of rules you think would help your organization. Call to Order, by Herb and Sue Perry is an easy-to-use book, specifically written for non-profit organizations. You may find it a useful reference as your board or organization develops its meeting rules and procedures.
Meeting Rules for Our Board / Organization
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