How to Schedule a Nonprofit Meeting: Point of Vu

Our humor columnist, Vu Le, comments on the joys of meeting scheduling. But first, a cartoon about meetings from Planet 501c3:

As a field, we have a lot of meetings. And we totally suck at scheduling them. Each week, I get at least a dozen emails like this: "Dear Vu, my name is John, and I am from Unicycle for Guns, a nonprofit dedicated to replacing violence with the joys of unicycling. I would like to meet with you to see how our organizations could collaborate. Let me know what works best for you."

Now, this email is very sincere and courteous, but it makes me want to punch the meeting requester in the pancreas. Not at first, of course, . . .

but gradually, due to a series of irritating emails. What's best for me may be 10:30 am on 10/20 at my office, so I write back with "How about 10:30am on 10/20 at my office?" Then they would write back with, "Sorry, I have another meeting at that time. How about 5pm on 10/23?" Of course, that doesn't work for me, so I write back, "Sorry, can’t do that time, how about 6 pm?" This could go on for several days or years.

I am proposing a set of rules that we all in the field follow which I hope will make us more efficient and lessen our chances of getting punched in the pancreas.

The Official Rules for Scheduling Nonprofit Meetings

Rule 1, the List of Three:

The meeting initiator must propose, in his initiation email, at minimum three dates and times of when he is available, these aforementioned times being preferably spread over several days. We use that line all the time: "Please let me know what works best for you." That's euphemism for "I want to sound thoughtful, but really I just don't feel like looking at my calendar and proposing several dates that I’m free. Why don't you do it, and '’ll see if it works for me." Hell no. That's lazy. You initiated the meeting; you look at your calendar. It takes a long time to look at my insane schedule to see three times that would work for me. Do you think I just sit in my cubicle watching clips of The Daily Show all day long? Of course not. There’s also the Colbert Report.

If none of the three times that the initiator proposed works for the meeting grantor, it is now the responsibility of the meeting grantor to set parameters (e.g, "this month is awful for me") and propose a separate set of at least three times that work for him. This List of Three shall be perpetuated in turn by both parties until a mutually agreeable time is determined.

Rule 2, the Burden of Travel:

The meeting initiator must bear more of the burden of travel when determining the meeting location. It is discourteous for the initiator to ask the grantor to come to his or her office, especially if it’s downtown, where parking fees tend to add up to Mitt Romney’s yearly tax savings. It’s like asking someone out. You make it convenient for them. You go and pick them up. You don’t say, "I’m so happy you agreed to go out with me. Can you pick me up at my place at 8?" What next, you ask them to drop by Tamarind Tree and pick you up some spring rolls on the way too? Negotiations can be made to find a mutually acceptable venue, but overall, the initiator must bear the majority of the burden of travel.

Rule 3, the Courtesy of Confirmation:

Meeting initiators are responsible to confirm the meeting before it happens, and to ensure the exchange of cell phone numbers in the event of lateness or last-minute cancelation. The other party may also confirm, though it’s not required. Whoever confirms, there should be no more than one confirmation per meeting.

Rule 4, the Payment of the Tab:

If you initiated and you have an expense account, offer to pay if you're meeting for coffee or lunch. If you don't have one, you can still offer to be polite, or go Dutch. Most nonprofit workers don't have expense accounts. We EDs of small organizations usually spend 50 bucks or more of our personal money each week on coffee meetings, lunches, dinner, etc. It's OK; we like to think of the children (Specifically: "Those darn children! They never have to pick up a tab! No wonder their phones are nicer than mine.")

Rule 5, the Price of Postponement:

Once the meeting is scheduled, whoever is the latest to request to reschedule the appointment now bears the burden of picking up the tab. That's right, you move our lunch appointment, you pay for lunch. You move it multiple times, I’m also ordering the most expensive dessert on the menu.

Rule 6, the Burden of Rescheduling:

Whoever canceled the meeting for any reason now has the responsibility to reschedule the meeting, following Rule 1. If within a month this does not occur, the other party may follow up with a reminder, but the burdens of the List of Three, of travel, and of picking up the tab, all fall on the party that requested the reschedule. This reminder is the only time where it's acceptable to send the line "let me know what works best for you" without having to include a List of Three.

Rule 7, the Role of the Assistant:

Assistants are wonderful and magical, like unicorns, and all of us would like to have one. But most of us do not. If you have one, ensure your assistant does not cause aggravation to those with whom they are trying to schedule a meeting. "Dear Vu, Edward would like to meet with you to discuss which baby animals are cuter, bunnies or baby porcupines, since this new study shows that looking at cute animals increases work place productivity. Are you free next Wednesday at 3pm to meet at our office downtown?"

Oout of collegial camaraderie, executive directors should never use their assistant to schedule a meeting with another executive director, unless the second ED has an assistant too. It's like "Have your people contact my people," but you have people, and I don't have people. Most of us are our own people! And if your people have no scheduling skills, I may respond back with something like "I’m sorry, this year is really awful for me."

These above rules are by no means comprehensive, and there are always exceptions. If you can think of other rules, please put them in the comment section. Overall, if we can agree to abide by a set of rules, it may make our work easier. I promise if you follow the ones above, I will not punch you in any internal organ. Rules for scheduling group meetings and conference call etiquette will follow later, after I catch up on the Daily Show.


Vu Le is executive director of the Vietnamese Friendship Association (VFA), a Social Venture Partners investee. His column, Point of Vu, documents the fun of nonprofit work. He can be reached at vu.le at vfaseattle dot org, when he is not in a meeting.

Comments (17)

  • These are brilliant! I particularly love #5. As an addendum to the Rule of 3, try using some technology like MeetingWizard, Doodle, or a public calendar like ScheduleOnce. -- Robert Weiner

    Dec 11, 2012
  • Thanks, Robert. I use Doodle a lot. It can be effective, except when people don't click on the link, and then you have to yell at them and threaten their family. Or maybe that's just me. Vu

    Dec 11, 2012
  • I love Doodle and Meeting Wizard and I hate when people are too lazy to click on the link. The rule of 3 is a good rule, but I vastly prefer meeting arrangement tools. Those darned e-mails get buried in about 30 minutes in the avalanche of incoming. Doodle doesn't.

    Dec 12, 2012
  • That is definitely not just you. I'm always baffled when someone responds that they can't figure out Doodle.

    Dec 12, 2012
  • The problem with Doodle is that I get asked to block off something like 100 hours and then wait forever until the initiator gets around to settling on one of them.

    Dec 13, 2012
  • I like to put the final date and time in bold and also in the last email subject line for ease. Also, when scheduling between several people, I give the three dates and ask them to respond to me to coordinate so the dreaded "cc all" isn't clogging inboxes. Good stuff, thanks!

    Dec 11, 2012
  • Yes, the rule about CC'ing is very thoughtful. Few things are as aggravating as receiving a dozen scheduling emails from different people. Vu

    Dec 11, 2012
  • Can this be sent to every college and/or university throughout the world that has any relationship with local not-for-profits in their area? They are the champions of "Hey, we would like to meet with you, what works best? What time can you be to our campus? And please bring $20 if you want to park within 3 miles of our office. Oh, and my friends and I decide to get drinks for lunch every so often so if you decide on a lunch date, I may have to cancel at the last minute because I don't want to meet while tipsy!" True story.

    Dec 12, 2012
  • Vu, this is brilliant. I've lived out every one of your scenarios just as you've described them. To date, I haven't punched anyone in the pancreas, but I did attempt a roundhouse a few weeks ago. One more to add to the list: The meeting initiator should have an agenda or purpose for the meeting, rather than showing up and asking what the grantor wanted to talk about.

    Dec 12, 2012
  • My office is in out in the suburban sprawl, and for me to get anywhere from here, or for you to come to visit me, is usually a burden for everyone. So, since at least one of us is going to have to travel, let's meet at the beginning or end of the day. I hate motoring out to my office (and I have to use the damn car, if I'm meeting someone else far away mid-day), then motoring out to the meeting, then motoring back to the office, then motoring home. Two or three hours blown behind the wheel. I love meetings downtown because I can take the bus there. Who needs to pay for exorbitant parking fees? And I can read email on my smart phone while on the bus. Yay for public transit!

    Dec 12, 2012
  • Vu - very insightful. I would like to chat with you about a couple of these ideas. Can you meet on the 17th, 18th or 19th?

    Dec 12, 2012
  • Vu, how about a sequel which would be "meetings with foundations"? Once I and our development director met three foundation folks at the restaurant they chose. When we expressed some amusement over an appetizer that cost $12, they urged us to order it and said it was delicious. In fact, they insisted. And two of them ordered glasses of wine. Then they all left before the check came. Bill for lunch which we paid: $190. And then we didn't get the grant.

    Dec 13, 2012
  • Love these! I'd also add an addendum to the comment about the purpose of the meeting. If someone requests a meeting by saying, "I'd love to brainstorm how to collaborate with you," you're likely to get a turn down. Do you have a specific idea in mind? I have plenty of work already, so I'd rather not waste valuable time brainstorming how to give myself MORE work. I'm all for good ideas, but not for spending my time helping you create one.

    Dec 13, 2012
  • I wholeheartedly agree. Oh, and I love it when board members suggest that our organization meets with their pet nonprofit organization to see how we can collaborate together. Really? How about specific, actionable ideas that are substantiated by the resources and ownership to carry them out? The last thing I need is another brainstorming hamster wheel with me or other over-stretched staff caught in the middle. I've been in nonprofits way too long perhaps.

    Dec 13, 2012
  • My rule for meetings is The 15 Minute Power Meeting. In my more than 25 years of professional meetings, I've deduced that really, we can get to the point and reach some resolution in 15 minutes. Anything more is just fluff. Period. Sometimes fluff is nice (like for marshmallows), most times it's unnecessary (like when you have a million other things to do besides hear the droning).

    Dec 14, 2012
  • Never underestimate the power of saying "thank you" and yes, manners matter.

    Jan 23, 2013
  • Very, very much so. I completely agree. It costs nothing to say thank you. And it is simply the right thing to do.

    Jan 28, 2013

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