Making Virtual Meetings Work for Charity Trustees

With the emerging challenges of coronavirus and working remotely, many trustee boards are considering virtual meetings as an alternative to face-to-face. The Charity Commission has guidance on remote meetings in their publication CC48: Charities and meetings and has recently issued new guidance specifically in relation to cornonavirus. Unless your governing document expressly excludes it, you most likely can meet virtually in order to meet your charity’s needs. However, you do need to be able to both see and hear one another so video-conferencing (rather than telephone) is essential.

In our experience, hosting and chairing meetings in a virtual format is challenging; you do not have the same non-verbal cues as you might in a face-to-face setting. Your trustees may have varying levels of digital skills which can affect their ability to participate and engage in decision-making in a meaningful way.

This short guide is intended to help you make virtual meetings work for you, your trustees and your charity.

Photo by Christina @ on Unsplash

1. Get the fundamentals in place

You’ll need video-conferencing software to enable you to meet virtually. Good, low-cost or free options include Zoom, 8×8 Video Meetings, Google Hangouts , Microsoft Teams and Skype. Many of the features of these tools are similar, it might come down to what you are already using and have available to you.

You’ll want to make sure that your meeting participants are comfortable using whichever software you use – you might signpost them to any useful resources or videos or offer a pre-meet to run through the different features if it is their first time using the software.

2. Consider your environment and presentation

Start by framing the camera correctly: we’ve all been on video calls where we end up looking up someone’s nose or only seeing half their face. Make sure you frame your camera in a way that feels natural and allows you to look at the camera. Sit at eye level to the lens and try to position yourself so that it shows you from mid-section up.

A common mistake is looking at the video feed instead of the camera when speaking to a remote participant. While it may seem like the right thing to do, it actually makes it appear as if you’re looking off and not paying attention.

Poor lighting conditions can affect the quality of your video – try to be in a room with sufficient lighting for people to see you. Finally, consider background noise – right before your meeting may not be the time to start your washing machine or have your family watch a noisy film in the background! Try to find a quiet space where you are able to focus.

3. Set some ground rules

In a virtual setting there is more potential for distractions to get in the way. Some useful ground rules would include:

· mute yourself when not speaking (especially if in a noisy environment)

· close down emails and other apps

· stay off mobile phones.

Model this and show you value the meeting content and your colleagues by not being visibly distracted. You can use comfort breaks throughout the meeting just as you would face-to-face. Top tip: put the return time in the call chat so people can reference this back and know when to return!

4. Help your trustees to participate and engage

Meeting in a virtual environment is very different to meeting face-to-face and it can lead to people talking over one another or worse, dead air. Having hosted and participated in many online meetings, I’ve found the following can really help engagement:

· Invest some time at the beginning in breaking the ice. For some reason in a virtual setting, we have more of a tendency to jump straight into the business. Spend a few minutes giving each person a chance to say hello and settle in.

· Use the inbuilt tools in your software such as screen sharing for key documents. For example, when reviewing the previous meeting minutes and matters arising you could share the document on your screen and make edits or annotations in real time, that everyone can see.

· Leave a sufficient pause after asking a question. Remember that your trustees may experience a few seconds delay so give them a chance to hear, reflect and respond.

· It can be helpful to ask for contributions one by one to ensure everyone has a chance to speak.

· Some of the software tools allow you to break people into smaller groups. If you have trustees that are less comfortable speaking in a large group setting you could break people into smaller discussions or allow time for individual reflections before asking for contributions.

· You might also need to frame your questions in a different way if you find you have no response. Recently on a trustee video conference call I was on, the Chair asked if anyone disagreed with a proposed response. This was met with silence. The Chair reframed the question to ask ‘what might some of the risks be with this approach?’ which led to useful contributions.

· Summarise key points and reiterate actions verbally as well as documenting in the minutes after discussions.

5. Remember to document and follow up

Just as with every trustee meeting, the post-meeting is just as important as the meeting itself. Make sure the minutes are documented – you might ask someone to do this for you, as it can be challenging to manage both the technology and the individual contributions as well as take accurate notes. You should circulate these with actions as soon as practicable afterwards.

These five tips should help you to make the most of your trustee meetings and ensure they are as productive as possible. Let us know if you have other advice or tips to share!