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Simple Meeting Hack: Change Your Agenda

Terrie Temkin, Ph.D.

CoreStrategies for Nonprofits, Inc.

Regardless of your role in your school, or where in the Americas that school is found, I have no doubt that you have spent more time in meetings than you ever would have cared to. At times, you probably have rolled your eyes and silently agreed with the quote often misattributed to Star Trek’s Captain Kirk: “Meetings are events where minutes are kept, and hours are wasted.” While I wish I could tell you that meetings are on their way out, with a great alternative on the horizon, I don’t see that happening in any of our lifetimes. It therefore behooves us to maximize the effectiveness of the meetings we must attend.

Fortunately, there is one simple hack that can make a big difference in how people perceive the value of a given meeting. That involves changing the format of your agenda. Yes, I’m asking you to throw out the traditional agenda that kicks off with minutes and reports, then moves through old business, and new. Why? Minutes, reports and much of old business deal with what has already happened. As a colleague of mine used to say, “It’s too late to screw up the past!” We need to be dealing with the future. What can, or should, we be doing to make a difference in the future lives of our students, parents, faculty, staff, and community members? Besides, those discussions are far more interesting and engaging.

I work with a lot of boards of nonprofits and NGOs. A number of years ago many boards started adopting consent agendas, where items not requiring discussion are bundled together for a single up or down vote. The underlying concept was to shave off the often-significant time spent on routine items and allow more time for strategic discussions. Unfortunately, few organizations manifested this time savings because they rarely used consent agendas correctly. Too many of the boards still asked for discussion on each item within the consent agenda before holding the single vote, or they included too few items on it. I like consent agendas and advocate for their use, but implore that you use them to your advantage. The consent portion of your agenda can be used for: attendance; minutes; correspondence; updates on goals or publicity requiring no action; committee, officer, principal, or superintendent accounts; compliance reports requiring no action; and, pro-forma recommendations. For a tip sheet on using consent agendas more effectively, click here.

There is so much more that you can do to make your meetings more strategic than just adopting a consent agenda – which, by the way, I would make the last item on your agenda, so you have plenty of time to discuss the critical and forward-thinking issues before those at your meeting. The first is to print your school’s mission, vision and value statements on the agenda and make sure that your meeting participants are always considering these in every discussion. If this isn’t happening organically, appoint a “mission-caller” to constantly ask the rest of the group, “How does this relate to our mission?” “Is this option going to get us closer to our vision?” “Is this decision in line with our values?”

Make your strategic initiatives the first item of business at each meeting. Schedule enough time to hold substantive discussions and arrive at considered decisions where appropriate. The focus of these discussions should be on the goals to which the group has previously committed, or issues of a strategic nature that have come up that could impact the school and/or its stakeholders in some way. If, when sending out the agenda, you include sufficient background material, your participants will be able to speak to the topics more intelligently. And, if you encourage them to think outside of that proverbial box, ask questions, and push back against the status quo, their interactions will end up being more strategic.

One technique that can help you concentrate on those things that must be discussed because of their potential for positively or negatively impacting the school is the “BTW (By the Way) Talk.” Invite meeting attendees to share what they have heard in other contexts since the group last met (“By the way, I learned…”). For example, consider how valuable even an extra few day’s-notice might be to learn that a new school is being built in your community with all the bells and whistles, and that it is going to promote itself as an international school – a market you have had to yourself for years. Everyone associated with your school has access to this sort of information at one time or another. Building time into the agendas of your various cohort meetings allows you to bring this information to the fore, discuss it, and keep your group focused on the strategic.

I would also include cohort education on every agenda. You are an educational institution after all! Depending on the content, you might allot just a couple minutes or quite a bit of time. But, the value of these sessions can’t be over-stated. The more those who are involved with your institution know about your mission – including student success stories, statistics, strides being made in admission to highly-ranked schools overseas, etc. – and your community – its changing demographics and trends – the better able they’ll be to make strategic decisions. Be creative in how you share this information. (Remember how deadly those reports are!)

Try building your agenda around these foci – each of which engages your different meeting participants in meaningful discussions and encourages them to share their intellectual capital. I guarantee all the seats around the table soon will be full. And, your decisions will be better.

See a sample strategic agenda here. (While aimed at your board, the structure is equally applicable to your faculty, staff, parent and community meetings.)


Terrie Temkin, Ph.D. is an internationally-recognized governance and planning expert, as well as the editor of You and Your Nonprofit Board: Advice and Tips from the Field’s Top Practitioners, Researchers and Provocateurs. She is a founding principal of CoreStrategies for Nonprofits, Inc., which interweaves business development, governance, board development, fund development, PR/marketing and public policy to strengthen organizational capacity. Contact her at 1-888-458-4351 Ext. 83 or Meanwhile, check out the CoreStrategies’ website for other articles and resources at


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