Ask a Nonprofit Expert – Beyond Virtual Facilitation: How to Maximize Engagement and Tackle Wicked Problems in Your Virtual Meeting

We’ve joined with a number of our nonprofit experts to bring you blog posts that will help answer some of your nonprofits toughest questions.

In this post, nonprofit expert Caliopy Glaros answers some questions that came from nonprofit professionals during her last free live webinar with us “Beyond Virtual Facilitation: How to Maximize Engagement and Tackle Wicked Problems in Your Virtual Meetings“.

See Caliopy’s answers below, and check out all of her webinars with CharityHowTo.

virtual meeting facilitation

Question: How is facilitating meetings among millennials and young professionals different when they seem afraid or powerless to share?

Hierarchies and office dynamics can affect people’s participation in a virtual format. I always recommend, particularly, if you’re wanting to elevate the voices of those in your organization that don’t often have opportunities to share their true perspectives or opinions, to have breakout rooms.

Make sure that you select a provocative topic. Like, what would you do in this case? What recommendations could you make? What should we change? What are we not seeing, or what are we not talking about?

Give that instruction and then actually put people into breakout rooms of 3 to 4 and have them share their opinions in that smaller group format.

That way, they’ll feel a little bit safer and talking to a smaller group as opposed to, 20 or 30 people that would be in the meeting. Also, they can select one person from the group to share the group’s feedback.

Once you come back to the larger format, you can go around and say, “group one, what did you discuss? What were your recommendations? What did you think about this?”

The speaker can speak on behalf of everyone. So it doesn’t put somebody on the spot. If, especially if they want to say something that might be an unpopular opinion or something that could contradict someone in leadership. It takes the heat off of that one person and gives them an opportunity to share in a small group format and to have their feedback expressed as group feedback as opposed to just that individual.


Question: How can you leverage the side conversations when the large group returns together?

So, again, we’ve put people in breakout rooms. They’ve had these great dialogs. And now we’re back to the large meeting format.

We absolutely should go around and ask one person from each group to share what the group’s discussion was if you don’t have time to do all of the groups. Just do maybe 2 or 3 to get some variety.

If you have a lot of breakout groups, you might not have time to ask for everyone’s perspective. Make sure that the content and the agenda of the meeting is responsive to the feedback that they would have gotten. That the question is relevant, and that the next piece of content that you’re going to go into after the breakout groups return is going to build off of what they discussed.

Question: How do you accomplish everyone talking if you have a larger group (15 or more)? Would a poll suffice?

So, absolutely, polls are a great way of getting data from everybody, but if you’re trying to solve a complex problem, you’re not going to be able to address that in the poll.

You want to actually be able to have a dialog with 15 people. You could still manage a dialog, but I would recommend you put them into breakout groups of 3 or 4, to have deeper, richer conversations.

Then bring them back to the large group format to debrief and discuss.

Question: How do you stop someone for constantly cutting people off?

So, this happens a lot in virtual formats, because we’re not in the room together, and we can’t see when somebody is about to speak. Also, there’s sometimes a delay, in terms of the signal, so we might not hear someone talk until a second or so after they’ve begun talking.

I wouldn’t assume that somebody cutting people off is doing it disrespectfully or out of a reason that they don’t like what the person is saying. In some social contexts, cutting people off actually shows energy and enthusiasm.

I would assume positive intent, and would absolutely, very clearly and directly point that out.

You might wait till the person finishes, and say, “thank you, Kelly…that was interesting. You had jumped right in the middle of what Tim was saying, and I would love to hear Tim finish his thought. Tim, can we come back to you?”

That’s usually enough to get that person to be more aware that they’ve been interrupting people. Then, hopefully, they’ll change.

If the behavior is really disruptive, and you notice that they’re really silencing a lot of folks. You should have a separate, one-on-one, online conversation with them outside of the meeting.

Question: How do you recommend best engaging in breakout groups when hosting larger scale meetings like a conference?

We want folks to have the opportunity to deeply engage, but also still feel that the whole group is participating in a collective event that is really important.

So, anytime someone goes into a breakout room, they should always be prompted with a topic. It’s not just to go into the breakout room and talk, people need to know what they’re talking about.

So, you have to prompt them with a particular question, or story, or prompt, or topic that they should discuss. You should create the curriculum so that when they come back to the large group format, you’re building off of what was discussed in those breakout rooms.

Question: How do we make certain there are no silent parties?

In my course, I recommend to not allow anyone to be a silent party. The question is how do we make sure there’s no silent parties?

One way is setting expectations. Let people know in advance when they sign up for the meeting, that they cannot just be on mute with their camera off the whole time. You’re going to expect them to come and participate.

Assign them pre work. Make sure that you’re talking, you’re getting them to talk within the first 10 minutes, and call on people

It’s not a good idea to just pose a question to a group and see who answers. Usually, in the beginning, we have to call on folks, because in the virtual format we don’t know who’s ready to speak. We want to create more space, actually putting people at ease if you call on them.

They think “I need to be ready to speak”, at least in the very beginning until the dialog flows more organically that later on.

Question: Our manager tends to schedule two hour meetings often with no agenda. Do you have a suggestion on how I can suggest changes during the meeting?

Next time you get a calendar invite for a two hour meeting, and you have no idea what it’s about, I would write back and say “Can I please have the agenda for the meeting, and what we’re going to discuss?”

I’d have a one-on-one conversation with the manager (you can blame it on me, or blame it on this course) and say, “You know, I’ve been taking some opportunity to do some professional development. I attended a course at CharityHowTo that talked about facilitation. And our facilitator really recommended that we know the meeting’s purpose, and we have an agenda, and some goals and outcomes.

We’ve been having meetings consistently now for weeks or months that haven’t had an agenda. And I feel like they’re not as productive as they could be. I’d really like to utilize everyone’s time more effectively. I’d like these to be more productive.

Question: We have our first virtual board meeting soon. In person, these quarterly meetings would last seven hours. Should it be cut to one to two hours when it’s virtual? What would your recommendations be to get the most of our virtual board meetings?

Yes, it absolutely be cut down to at maximum 3 or 4 hours. But if you could cut it down even more, I recommend you do that.

Often these in person meetings are long because we’re sharing a lot of updates, particularly with the board. You might be asking a Program Officer or the Development Director to come in and share all these updates.

Those updates can go through an email and can go into a report that they read in advance. Could you record your program officer giving that talk and have them watch it in advance on their own time?

Make use of sending them the materials in advance for them to read through. So that that couple hours where your altogether can really be spent well, harnessing the board’s perspective and wisdom.

Have them do their pre work. So you can come with very rich questions to ask them. We don’t want people sitting in silence listening to others present. They could watch recordings on their own time when we’re asking our board members to be present.

Should board meeting motions be voted via polls, since we may not see everyone put their hands up in the video, you can absolutely do things that way. You can also go around and say, “I”. Zoom also has the capability of actually putting a cartoon hand in the screen.

So, there’s a number of different things. one is not better than the other, but just decide what you’d like to do and keep it consistent.

Question: How would you scale all this down for meetings with donors?

So, I’m assuming that these are one-on-one meetings with some of your donors. You still want to make sure to set some expectations in advance. You want the donor to be present and not, say be in their car driving from one thing to another.

The next, you still want to have an agenda and some talking points. I do also like to share the purpose of the meeting with the donors so they know what to expect.

Are you asking them for money, or are you just touching base with them and providing some updates and other things for discussion.

I also recommend that the meeting not just be updates. I recommend that you have questions for the donor, things you want to learn about them. More provocative conversations.

You want to discuss things that really deepen their awareness around critical issues. General updates can come in an email.

If you’re going to have the donors time, we want to really make it more of a dialog, and be asking them some questions, and getting their insight on things. So that’s how I would use virtual meeting with the donor.


Don’t stop your learning with Caliopy at this blog post! Check out all of Caliopy’s webinars with CharityHowTo.


Topics: Fundraising, nonprofit meetings, nonprofit expert advice, virtual meeting engagement, Nonprofit Tips & Tricks, Donor Management