Tools for nonprofit leaders: Tips for chairing meetings

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Congratulations. You have been elected or appointed to chair meetings. Here are some tips on how to do a great job.

1. Get materials to participants well in advance of your meeting

Ensure that the agenda, the minutes of the last meeting, and other documents or links that provide background information to help participants prepare are sent to them in enough time for them to review them. These days, most pre-meeting packages are sent electronically by e-mail (good for the environment). You should allow members at lease seven days to review materials prior to the meeting; vacations and business trips can often take up five consecutive business days of a person's time, making reading your materials not conducive to their schedule.

2. Use verbs in your agenda

Each agenda item should contain a verb. Instead of “Financial Statements” you should write “Approve” or “Review” or “Discuss” or “Adopt”. This conveys the intent of the treatment of the item during the meeting.

3. Frame the purpose of the meeting at the outset

While one expects attendees to know the purpose of the meeting you are chairing, it is helpful to summarize the purpose and intended outcome of the meeting to ensure everyone is on the same page.

4. Be in charge

You are the chair; stay in charge. Do not let staff, the previous chair, or any exuberant committee member or guest take control of the meeting. If someone tries, you should thank them for their suggestion and then declare, as Chair, how you intend to proceed.

5. Confirm who is taking the meeting minutes at the beginning of the meeting

While it may be obvious, it is prudent to confirm who is taking the minutes to avoid any misunderstanding. As a chair, you should also take notes of key decisions, who moved motions, etc. just in case the minute-taker loses their ability to produce the minutes.

6. Start the meeting on time and end on time too

Why reward those who are late by waiting for them? Reward those who arranged to be present at the scheduled start time by starting on time.

Balance the time allotted to ensure you cover the priority items; if you cannot deal with every item on the agenda, get your group to agree whether to defer unfinished business to the next meeting or plan a special meeting to complete the work. Your meeting attendees have their own schedules to follow; it is important to always end on time. If you detect a pattern where you never seem to be able to cover all agenda items, consider holding longer meetings.

7. Ask participants to turn off their electronic devices

Despite what some may tell you, it is easy to lose track of what is being said when someone is working on their Blackberry or talking on a cellphone. Ask your meeting attendees to cooperate; unfortunately, when dealing with people who are volunteering their time, you cannot demand cooperation.

8. Manage new ideas

The purpose of asking for approval of the agenda is to get buy-in for what business is to be conducted. If someone introduces a new idea not covered by your agenda, allow it to be dealt with under “new business” at the end of the meeting. Some organizations only allow an unscheduled item to be “tabled” (parked) and dealt with at a next meeting in order to allow participants to come prepared to discuss the item.

9. Ensure a comfortable meeting environment

Ask your participants if they are comfortable; is the temperature alright; can those on speaker phone hear what is being said; have you announced when the washroom break will be and where the washrooms are located.

10. Repeat agreements

Once a decision has been made, paraphrase it to ensure everyone is clear. This includes repeating who has accepted an assignment and by when it is to be completed.

11. Manage controversy - don’t let it run your meeting

When participants disagree and especially when they get heated about it, it is imperative that the Chair declare the process to be followed to address the issue at hand. Establish the rules. For example, you can declare how many minutes will be allocated before a decision or vote is going to be called for. Announce how many times one person may comment on the issue and/or how many minutes each person speaking is entitled to. Remind people how important it is to listen to others; do not tolerate anyone who interrupts the person speaking. If necessary, require that people raise their hand and ask them to wait until you invite them to speak. If several people raise their hands, be sure to allow them to speak in the same order as the hands went up to be fair. If someone attempts to change the topic of discussion, ask them to hold their comments until the issue on the table has been dealt with.

If someone’s behaviour is inappropriate or unprofessional, call them on it in a respectful way; remind them to stay focused on the issue and always use affirmative language.

If you know a meeting is likely to generate controversy among participants, declare the discussion guidelines at the beginning of the meeting and ask for permission to enforce them. Acknowledge that it is important to be constructive, and that those who comment on a problem are asked to propose a solution when they speak. Remind the meeting attendees that you want to discuss the issues not the people.

12. Deal with anyone who challenges your direction

Participants are entitled to appeal your decision. As Chair, be familiar with and follow your Rules of Order. Some groups require a motion and a seconder to appeal the Chair’s decision. From there, you proceed as you would with any motion; allow full discussion and then call for the vote. A tie vote is unacceptable; the Chair breaks the tie. Do not ask someone else to chair this portion of the meeting. You are the Chair; do your job. If your decisions is overturned by the meeting, keep a stiff upper lip and carry on without attitude. If you managed to keep the discussion about the issue at hand, it is not about you and you should not take it personally.

13. Know how to manage revisiting a decision

Eli Mina, a registered parliamentarian, has published advice on revisiting a decision:

A motion that was adopted can only be revisited if it is possible to reverse or modify the action that was authorized by this motion. For example: if all money that was authorized for a certain purchase was spent, it is too late to revisit the motion that authorized it. If a motion was partly implemented, only the parts that were not executed can be revisited.

Under Robert’s Rules of Order, a motion that was adopted can be revisited at the same meeting via the motion to reconsider, which can be made by a member who voted on the prevailing side (in favour of the motion in this case). In such a case, two steps will be taken: first, a vote on whether the motion will be reconsidered. If the motion to reconsider is adopted (by a majority vote), the group will reconsider and then re-vote on the original motion, possibly with a different outcome.

An adopted motion can also be revisited at a subsequent meeting via the motion to rescind or amend something previously adopted. This motion can be made by any member, regardless of how he or she voted originally. Only one step would be taken in this case: debate and vote on whether the original motion will be rescinded or amended.

A defeated motion can be revisited at the same meeting via the motion to reconsider, which can be made by a member who voted on the prevailing side (against the motion in this case), If the motion to reconsider is adopted (by a majority vote), the defeated motion will be back before the assembly.

A defeated motion can also be revisited at a subsequent meeting by being reintroduced as new business, following the normal processes that apply to the introduction of new business. The motion to reconsider does not apply in this case. It only applies during the meeting when the original decision was made.

14. Avoid negative motions

When someone states a motion in a negative way, it can be confusing for the meeting participants to clearly understand which way their vote will be interpreted. For example, if someone moves that the association not endorse a member’s product, ask them to rephrase their motion to state that “The Association adopt (or apply) a policy that it will not endorse the member’s products..." If someone proposes a negative motion, ask them to rephrase it in a positive way.

15. Be Firm

Most Chairs want to be open, fair, and liked by all. What you should want is to be respected over being liked.Allowing meetings to start late, end late, be railroaded, not follow the agenda’s priorities, etc. is disrespectful of participants' time and contributions. Ensure you manage a productive meeting; you are not just a facilitator of discussion, you have been given the authority to manage the meeting’s proceedings.

16. Make it fun!

Meetings need to be taken seriously because you are dealing with people’s time and talent and issues that are important (aren’t you?). As Chair you are responsible for making your meeting’s “experience” a positive one for the participants. What are the factors of a positive experience? They can include:

  • A productive use of time
  • A pleasant experience
  • A sense of being appreciated for one’s participation.

To know how to take advantage of staff’s support, read How staff can support their board of directors, posted on

We hope these tips are helpful and invite your comments so that we can edit and add to them.

Paulette in President of Solution Studio Inc., a consulting practice that serves the not-for-profit association community. Paulette co-authored two manuscripts on risk management & not-for-profit organizations. She can be reached at 1-877-787-7714 or

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