Community meetings are often viewed by organisers with some trepidation. A task that “needs to be done”. Community meetings can be challenging but, with proper planning they can be an uplifting community event.
Furthermore, given they are infrequent, they are costly and the time commitment of the people attending is significant, they should be carefully planned to maximise the prospect of success.
The priority for organisers is be clear about the purpose or objectives of the meeting. It must be more than share information and deal with formal business. A five-hour information dump doesn’t cut it.
Here are some objectives to consider:
- Pay respects to elders
- Thank people for travelling
- Emphasise how important these meetings are
- Allow time for families to reconnect
- Celebrate successes in the community
- Show leaders and leadership
- Provide clarity of direction
- Show transparency and good governance
- Inspire confidence
- Encourage the next generation of leaders
- Allow the children to have fun
- Enjoy cultural connection through language, song and dance
- Allow time for people to share their feedback and ideas (hear from the people)
- Conduct formal business, minutes, accounts, elections etc
Structure the agenda
For the meeting to meet these objectives, the agenda must be carefully structured not only regarding content, but also regarding time allocation and flow.
Here are some thoughts:
- Start with a reasonably lengthy and warm welcome
- Avoid appointing the Chair from the floor if possible. The Chair is the conductor of the day’s activities, he or she needs to be across the agenda, the desired outcomes, any papers or presentations and needs to be able to control the flow of the meeting. This means they need to be experienced and respected. I have seen people take on the role from the floor with no experience and it was harrowing for them and the challenging for the community.
- Establish some rules of the meeting, most of these are obvious and revolve around common courtesies but for example it may be helpful to have rules around mobile phones.
- Have the Chair run through the Purpose of the meeting, drawing from the list above.
- Recap on the last meeting, the key points that were carried over.
- Recognise community members who have achieved things since the last meeting. Celebrate their success.
- Deal with the formalities early in the day while people are fresh. Make them as interactive as possible recognising inevitably much of it will be quite dry.
- Intersperse proceedings, particularly the “heavy sessions” with music, dance and videos of community events.
- Deal with elections when the majority are present, don’t leave them to the end of day when you may be scratching for a quorum. Furthermore, elections are important, they are a time to recognise those who are served and to encourage the next generation to step up. This is more likely if the roles are recognised and respected and if elections are well organised, fairly run and transparent. Ensure papers are circulated well in advance of the meeting setting out who is standing, why and what they think they bring to the role.
- Feedback sessions are vital, community members will bring their frustrations with policy systems and processes to the meeting and they expect to be heard. This is entirely reasonable, and it is vital that sufficient time is made available to hear and record this feedback and provide some time lines for response. Managing this part of the meeting is critical and the timing of it in the agenda is also important. Too early and it sets the tone for the whole meeting or too late then everyone leaves feeling flat. My advice would be to have it after morning tea with a wrap up before lunch. This provides an opportunity to sum up the findings after lunch and move on to other topics.
- The after-lunch session is often referred to by presenters as the “graveyard shift” because it is difficult to get engagement. Make this session interactive – conduct these in the fresh air if possible. Make it fun.
- End on an uplifting message.
- Encourage feedback.
Things go wrong if presenters assume community members can recall the detail of what was discussed at the last community meeting. This is an unrealistic expectation, no one can remember the detail of meetings they attended 6 or 12 months previously and neither should they be expected to. The presenter needs to provide the audience with the journey to date, what has been approved to date and what is on the table for approval today. Its not hard and its respectful.
Some of the sessions are by their nature going to be dry and many people will switch off. Make these sessions as pictorial as possible and avoid the PowerPoint slide jam packed with numbers or words. Unfortunately, it still happens. Those at the back of a large hall have no chance and when people switch off they get restless, they leave or become disruptive, none are good outcomes.
Get some basics right
Other important points:
- make sure the room is the right size, preferably has natural light. It should have good acoustics and a decent sound system. There is nothing worse than not being able to hear questions that are being asked and only hearing the response. People switch off.
- have sufficient food and make sure it is reasonable quality. Running out of food or having poor quality food is an unnecessary cause of irritation.
- make election papers easy to understand, let members know how many positions are vacant, how the winner will be decided and how votes will be tallied. Put processes in place to ensure attendees only have one vote and they are the ones voting.
- a common complaint is “I didn’t receive my papers”. There can be many reasons behind this but as most people are contactable via email or sms a message to say documents have been despatched and if they aren’t received by a specified date to get in touch should minimise the problem.
- entertain the kids elsewhere. Having young children running around in the meeting is awesome but people become distracted, furthermore the parents are distracted, wondering and worrying. Have the children in a separate area and offer them a range of activities in a properly supervised environment. They will enjoy it more.
Role of the Chair
Its vitally important one or two people don’t dominate the microphone.
While that individual may have lots of scenarios they would like to share or test, the reality is the rest of the room will be in snooze mode.
A lot of minor issues can be car parked and handled outside the main meeting. It is important to hear from a broad a cross section of the community i.e. representative feedback not one person’s view.
The role of the Chair is to keep the meeting flowing which requires handling dominant voices in a way that makes the person feel respected and assured that their views won’t be lost.
If the agenda is assembled by an external party (e.g. professional trustee) it is the role of the Chair to ensure that it is culturally sensitive. Mistakes in this regard can be very hurtful and/or damaging.
In terms of flow the Chair needs to feel the temperature and call for 5-minute breaks when he or she feels the “mood of meeting” dropping. If people are kept fresh, then they will more be focussed on the business on hand.
You may read this and think if only we had the money. To get external organisers to set up and run the meeting and the activities for kids can be expensive but there is usually an enormous amount of talent ideas and energy within the community and getting the younger community members to play a role can be uplifting and inexpensive.
What about feedback? How do you know if the meeting has been a success? What about people tap the smiley face or the frowning face on their way out? Alternatively point them to a member of the Organising Committee, the Corporation, DMC or Council and ask them to share their ideas.
Offer vouchers for the best ideas to encourage a higher level of participation.
Consider what information to share with members who didn’t attend the meeting. Make it interesting, hopefully they will read it and attend the next meeting. Like a big family gathering, the more the merrier!
Here is a thought, set up an organising committee of community members (include some youngsters) for your next community meeting, run through this checklist. Let me know how you go and some of your best ideas and I’ll share the feedback, so we can help others tasked with this role.
Let us know if you have any other tips for making community meetings successful and enjoyable for everyone!