Meeting as a group, on a regular basis, will strengthen your organization. Meetings provide an opportunity to discuss plans and needs. They should be both fun and effective. Below are a few key concepts that will help plan effective meetings.

Meeting Structure & Agenda Setting

A key to a good meeting is a workable agenda. Without an agenda, the discussion is likely to be unfocused and prevent progress. It is difficult to make decisions if your group's "train of thought" is interrupted. You may also run out of time, leaving individuals making decisions which ought to be made by the group.

An agenda should be created by several people; and it is best if planning occurs near the end of the previous meeting, when your group is thinking about its future needs. By planning ahead, you can advertise the main attraction of the meeting and win new members especially if it will be a video, faculty presentation, speaker, free food, etc.

Once you have brainstormed a list of items, group them into categories. Make time for business items, new ideas, announcements, and discussion items. You will want to allow adequate time for all of these items. Try to limit your meeting to less than one and a half hours, leaving time to plan for the next meetings and to assign responsibilities.

Begin with quick decisions, and allow progress to be made on new items without letting them postpone major business. This meeting model may or may not work for your group. For example, if an emergency arises, you won't have time to set the agenda before the meeting. We encourage you to discuss and change the model to suit specific situations.

Decision-Making Options

Decisions of the group are strongest when made unanimously. A split vote on an issue may leave those on the losing end upset. However, while it is a good idea to strive for consensus, the need for total consensus can paralyze your group. One person will be able to obstruct decisions.

C.T. Butler, in a highly recommended guidebook called "On Conflict and Consensus" (see Bibliography) encourages peace and justice groups to come within one vote of consensus. Other organizations use Robert's Rule of Order (which everone should know equally well, otherwise they can be used by a few to manipulate a meeting), Majority Voting, or Modified Consensus Models. If your group is not in favor of consensus, look at the rules of other decision making structures.

A "facilitator" guides the process of building consensus. Choose a facilitator and a note-taker at the very beginning of your meeting. A facilitator makes it possible for others to conduct the discussion, but refrains from stating his/her own opinions and so should refrain from this role if s/he has a lot of input. Beware of a strong chair who dominates your meetings.

Proposal initiation varies from group to group. Some allow proposals to be introduced by individuals; others collectively brainstorm and present proposals based on an intensive discussion of ideas. Once you present a proposal, here is a possible model for decision making:

  1. Introduce the proposal.
  2. As a group, talk about the proposal, its strengths, weaknesses, relation to your organization, etc.
  3. Improve the proposal as ideas come about. Agree upon these as they come up.
  4. Take a trial vote, if it is unanimous, the proposal is approved. Now move on to planning the logistics of the action, events, or initiative just passed.
  5. People who object, if not unanimous, should state their concerns.
A true consensus model encourages the proposal to be modified until there is no more than one unhappy person, but in large organizations or in newly constituted groups this can be very inefficient. Your organization must decide how much support will be needed to approve proposals. It is best to use the beginning stages of consensus for any decision. How to deal with dissent is a group decision that you should feel comfortable using for all meetings.

Encouraging Democratic Participation

The facilitator is also responsible for observing the process in the room. If attention is not paid to who is speaking, your peace and justice group may be controlled by the input of a vocal few. This is a situation that you want to avoid. If a few people dominate the facilitator can implement some of these devices to make sure everyone's input is heard:
  • Only accept comments from those who have not spoken
  • Have a "go-round." Go around the room and ask every person to state an opinion on a key question
  • Alternate between men and women, if this is possible and applicable
  • Take "straw polls"
  • Ask if people need a break
  • Break up into smaller groups and then report back to the whole
  • Have another person keep time so that you can focus on facilitating
Be sure to rotate the facilitator and note-taker so that all members of your group pick up these skills; every year you could hold a training so that new members can more easily pick up these and other skills. [Note: For more information on consensus decision-making, we highly recommend "On Conflict & Consensus," listed in the Bibliography.]