Never Waste a Crisis (Part 1): Holding Effective Meetings

3 Tips on Holding Effective Meetings for Charity Boards

Boards in the charity sector are operating in a challenging environment. Covid-19 has created huge need for charitable services, while constraining sources of funding and volunteering support. Governance effectiveness is under scrutiny while many charities are also finding themselves at the brink of viability and are facing truly existential decisions.

This autumn, whilst I was working for the decision-science consultancy Leapwise, we partnered with New Philanthropy Capital on a pro bono project to support the sector. We interviewed CEOs and Chairs of UK charities as well as board advisory experts, collected new data from trustees, and integrated their best-practice insights with our knowledge on decision-science.

The result is a report on how boards can equip themselves for a challenging period of decision-making. Staying true to the saying “Never waste a crisis!”, we believe that the disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic is presenting boards with an opportunity to assess the effectiveness of their meetings and to revisit their decision-making processes.

“This is the moment to take risks. If you are not taking risks when you have a social purpose and the whole of your ecosystem has changed – what the hell are you there for?

Penny Lawrence, Chair of Refugee Action

Boards are tasked with providing strategic oversight. But the Covid-19 pandemic has prompted some charity boards to become more heavily involved with day-to-day operational activities. Shifting the focus from the here-and-now to more medium- to long-term strategic issues will be essential if boards are to keep their organisations on track. What can boards do to ensure effective governance and oversight during a period of remote work, distraction and volatility?

3 Tips for Better Meetings

When we asked trustees what they would change if they could tackle just one aspect of board meetings, 29% said they would prioritise improving the discussions they have. Across many UK charities, board meetings have become more frequent during the Covid-19 pandemic. To make meetings count and stop ‘meeting fatigue’ from slowing down your team, consider the following tips on effective board meetings:

  1. Involve stakeholders with specific expertise

Often, the most productive discussions involve not only board members but also the executive team who will eventually be tasked with implementing the decision, and the people the charity exists to serve. Their perspectives can ground the board’s strategic outlook in the realities of a charity’s work.

To diversify input into your discussions, consider using the remote work environment to your advantage: For example, consider inviting expert contributors to call in for parts of the meetings. You might also engage front-line staff and the executive team by recording and sharing relevant sections of your meetings.

Whether online or offline, some charity boards are already putting systems in place to ensure relevant stakeholder engagement:

  • Pairing: To limit meeting size, some charities pair individual trustees with named contacts in the executive team. These duos establish a rapport outside of board meetings and share information which trustees can then feed back to the board.
  • Experts by Experience: Consider including several Experts by Experience on your board. But be mindful not to expect a single individual to represent all service users.
  • Active chairing: Be deliberate with whom to involve in a discussion and when and be mindful to engage both experts and non-experts in the discussion.
  1. Structure agendas wisely

The way the chair and chief executive build the agenda for a board meeting strongly affects the quality of discussions that emerge. You can create an effective agenda by paying attention to focus, function and flow.

  • Focus: Being clear on your goals and on which are most important is the first step in decision-making success. For charities, this means constant focus on mission and impact. Mission is the starting point of good agendas. It should guide what goes into the meeting and how attendees understand the purpose of the meeting and of each individual agenda item.  
  • Function: Discussions can be undermined by confusion over whether an agenda item is for decision, approval, information, or discussion. Communicate this to create clarity.
  • Flow: Create a sensible flow through the meeting and build the agenda in a way that tells a story. Be sure to include proactive items that focus on the long-term vision and strategy of your charity, and not just short-term firefighting. Research has shown that items that appear early on an agenda receive the most attention during meetings, so schedule the most important items 10-15% into the meeting.[i]
  1. Manage discussions actively

Chairs who successfully facilitate good discussions know their trustees well. Active chairing means enabling trustees to play to their strengths.

Active chairs are not only aware of trustees’ habits and preferences in discussions, but also of their own ability to shape and even inadvertently shut-down conversations. Chairs’ opinions disproportionately affect discussions. To avoid biasing debate, some chairs find it helpful to deliberately withhold their contribution to the end of a discussion.[ii]

Chairs who successfully involve quieter and less forthcoming trustees shared the following tips:

  • Pairs: Invite trustees to discuss an issue in pairs and give a summary. More introverted trustees may prefer sharing their opinion in smaller groups. This approach also allows for a degree of depersonalisation that can foster openness.
  • Around the room: Go around the (virtual) room to give every attendee an opportunity to speak (a pass is possible). For some decisions, a show of hands or survey can quickly reveal the range of views present and then focus discussions on areas of agreement and disagreement.

When board meetings are shaped by the organisation’s mission and vision, engage crucial stakeholders and allow trustees to play to their strengths, they set boards up for productive discussions. However, how can trustees ensure that these discussions culminate in effective, impactful decisions that help the executive team realise their mission? Effective meetings and successful decision-making structures go hand-in-hand. Read part 2 to find out more about top tips on effective decision-making for charity boards.


[i] Littlepage, G. E., & Poole, J. R. (1993). Time allocation in decision making groups. Journal of Social Behavior & Personality, 8, 663–672.

[ii] Flowers, M. L. (1977). A laboratory test of some implications of Janis’s groupthink hypothesis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 35(12), 888.