How to make your council meetings vibrant

When I attended my first council meeting, I arrived to a small group looking eagerly at the clock. We waited in silence as the start time of the meeting came and went. “We’ll give people a few more minutes,” someone said. But the minutes did not matter. The meeting would start with the few people in attendance, much to the disappointment of those who organized it. Despite the advertisement, the meeting had failed to attract the attendance of council members. 

This is a common problem. You form a council with a number of sitting members who each have a vote. To make decisions as a council, a minimum number of council members need to attend; the so-called quorum. But schedules are busy and research schedules can mess up your day, making it more likely than not that council members fail to attend. What can you do? 

When I joined the SURPAS leadership we faced pressing decisions. We had to vote on a budget proposal. We had the opportunity to present to administrators. And we had a pressing advocacy matter in the form of rising healthcare premiums. Our bylaws put the decision making power in the hands of the Council, provided more than half of its members were in attendance. Needless to say, they were not and we could not vote on the important matters that needed decisions. What did we do? We put things on the agenda once again, but attendance remained too low. However, the bylaws allowed the leadership to press on with important decisions if quorum was not reached for several meetings in succession. So we pressed on ahead and made the necessary decisions. While we had a successful year as a leadership, council attendance never reached that magical number of 50%. 

The challenge with meetings like this is that it takes hard work to get people to attend. Whenever you attempt to convince a group of people to be active in a team goal, you tend to focus on the goals of the association. This is natural. However, most people join the organization for their own benefit. True, many genuinely want to help. But the opportunity to meet interesting people, to learn about important decisions, and to build your CV are equally important and most of the time these are the most prominent factors in individual minds when they decide whether to show up or not. When you organize a meeting, you have to keep all of these personal goals in mind. For instance, people who simply want to build their CV won’t need to be actively involved. People who care about meeting others, might not care so much about any particular meeting. And people who want to learn about important decisions want to feel involved. As leadership, your job is to help people achieve these goals while they serve the group purpose.

When we noticed attendance was lacking, we started asking people what they felt was most important for the organization. We learned that transportation benefits were high on council members’ minds. So we decided to put it on the agenda and we asked everyone in person to attend the next meeting. Many came and we decided to make transportation our main priority that year. However, we still failed to reach quorum and could not make any decisions. This time, rather than press forward as we had in the past, we put the responsibility on the shoulders of the council. We pointed out that they all unanimously felt it was the most important issue at stake. And we pointed out that without quorum, we would not be able to move forward. However, if they all would attend these meetings, we might be able to have a big impact.

This worked. Council members not in attendance apologized and promised to attend next time. For the next meeting, we shared a detailed agenda in advance, including the votes we would take. And we continued to invite people in person to stress how they would contribute and gain from attending. We did so for every meeting and for a full 12 months we reached quorum every single council meeting. 

When you host a meeting, take the time to consider why people would want to attend. When you can communicate that they will get something out of it, people will do their best to show up.