Better Meetings for Better Philanthropy

Expert opinion


It’s likely you’re reading this just before, or soon after, a meeting. Philanthropic organizations use meetings to impart information, craft strategies, and make major decisions. Yet far too many board meetings, family summits, and philanthropic planning sessions are poorly designed and managed, leading to inefficiency, disengagement, and bad decisions. How can meetings generate real progress and be sources of inspiration, connection, and insight rather than sucking time and energy?


Transforming your meetings from unremarkable to impactful requires both sound meeting design and effective facilitation. But first you need to know why you’re holding the meeting at all.


Clarifying Meeting Objectives

Before issuing invitations it's essential to ask, "What do we want to achieve with this meeting?" The objectives can vary widely, including making important decisions, fulfilling legal obligations, building relationships, generating ideas, tapping expertise, enhancing trust, motivating board members, and educating participants. Write down the meeting objective(s) and design the agenda from there. Then look back at the objectives to see if the meeting you’ve planned is likely to meet them.


For instance, a family foundation might have the following objectives in mind:

  1. Understanding the impact of prior funding for a food bank.
  2. Increasing engagement through inspiring board members.
  3. Fostering relationships among family members.
  4. Exploring economic mobility as a new grant focus area.
  5. Educating foundation members on relevant topics.


A conventional meeting agenda with financial and committee reports followed by general discussion is unlikely to achieve most of these goals. In contrast, an agenda driven by these objectives might include:

  • Recorded or in-person testimonials from beneficiaries of the food bank's initiatives (serving objectives 1 and 2).
  • Updates and a discussion led by members exploring the potential of economic mobility grants (objectives 3, 4, and 5).
  • An icebreaker session allowing attendees 60 seconds each to share a surprising personal fact (objective 3).
  • A brief video followed by discussion on assessing grant impact while minimizing reporting burden on recipients (objectives 1 and 5).


Writing your objectives on the meeting agenda is a discipline that promotes clarity and accountability. It also impresses attendees and signals a high level of professionalism.


Designing the Agenda

Some principles for meeting planning include:

  • Shift from Reporting to Discussion: Eliminate committee reports from meetings, insisting instead that they be submitted in one-page written summaries for advance distribution. This allows meeting time to be spent on critical organizational issues, leverages the board's expertise, and promotes active participation. This step is the single most effective way to transform meetings from dull to engaging.
  • Collaborative Agenda Creation: The board chair and executive director (ED) should jointly identify the most pressing organizational challenges. They should provide comprehensive written background and specific discussion questions in advance, ensuring that participants enter the meeting with a sufficient understanding of the issues to contribute to discussion.
  • Time Management: Assign specific durations to each agenda item. Put higher priority topics earlier and allot them more time.
  • Relationship Time: Invite onsite participants to arrive 30 minutes early for networking, which also facilitates punctuality. Virtual participants can be encouraged to join early for social time. During the meeting, invite attendees to briefly introduce themselves, sharing something personal and memorable.
  • Engaging Format: Build in active participation, which is more enjoyable and yields more benefit to the organization that passive listening. Minimize the time the ED and chair speak. A discussion-based agenda enhances engagement, and breakout sessions can further foster participation. For virtual meetings, use chat remarks, electronic polling, whiteboarding, and screen sharing.
  • Executive Session: The meeting should conclude with two separate executive sessions. The first involves the board and the ED, facilitating honest discussions about staff. The second, involving the board only, focuses on the ED’s performance. This greatly reduces back-channel discussions, which often become gossipy and unproductive. Hod these sessions regularly, not only if things are going poorly.
  • Design for Participant Contribution: Board members are eager to contribute and are frustrated by meeting formats that don’t allow for that. By replacing committee reports with challenging, pertinent questions and building in interactivity, you’re on track to have a terrific meeting – if it’s well-facilitated.


Facilitating the Meeting

Even a well-structured meeting will fall flat if poorly moderated. Facilitation tips include:

  • Punctuality: Start and end on time to instill a culture of timeliness and professionalism. Don’t wait for latecomers; that encourages everyone to be tardy next time.
  • Stick to the Agenda: Adhere to preplanned topics and timeline. Flex slightly when needed but be aware of the tradeoffs.
  • Inclusivity: Foster a safe environment where all voices are respected and heard. Encourage participation from all board members. You may need to call on individuals who are less assertive, such as less experienced members or those from historically marginalized groups. In family foundations, younger generations may be hesitant to voice their opinions to older relatives.
  • Constructive Debate: Candid dialogue drives problem-solving and progress. Promote vigorous debate while preventing conflicts from derailing discussions.
  • Assertiveness: Actively and respectfully manage the meeting to ensure objectives are met. That may mean limiting individual comments, calling on silent participants, and enforcing time limits. Many facilitators are reluctant to do this, but it elicits the most from the brain trust. If the chair isn’t a strong moderator, it’s better to have someone else facilitate.
  • Summarize and Clarify: Regularly summarize key points and decisions to ensure everyone is on the same page.
  • Review Action Items: Ensure everyone understands their responsibilities and timelines for follow-up, providing a sense of accomplishment and accountability.


Note that these principles apply, with some modifications, to virtual or hybrid meetings, which have become the norm for many boards. For tips, refer to the articles "Leading Boards in a Virtual World" and "How to Run Effective Hybrid Meetings in the Social Sector."



In philanthropy and impact investing, board meetings are crucial vehicles not only for decision-making but also for educating and inspiring funders and staff. However, meetings often fall short due to vague objectives, inadequate design, and weak facilitation. Improving your meetings will lead to more effective boards, more engaged donors and volunteers, and more impactful philanthropy.