How to schedule a meeting without being punched in the pancreas


pug-1209129_960_720As 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 Unicycles for Peace, 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 10:30am 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 6pm?” 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 I’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?”

As I mentioned in a previous post, out 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.”

Rule 8, the Price of Failure: Whoever stands up the other party, whether intentional or not, must pay the price for this insult. in addition to buying all stood-up parties lunch, the offender must send an apologetic email with significant groveling and new times, based on Rule 1, the List of Three. If both parties for some reason simultaneously stood one another up, no further action is necessary, for they are both idiots.

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.


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  • rangerskye

    This should be required for everyone in the nonprofit world. So true. I’ve come to most of these conclusions over years of frustrating meeting-schedule-attempts (and have broken some of them and learned why they matter) – but never written them down, let alone with such good humor.

    Found this blog recently and am catching up – great stuff.

    Skye (at Forterra)

    • Vu

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Skye. Yes, meeting scheduling is something we can all do a better job at. Sometimes I get an email like “please let me know what works best for you” and I just forward the link to this blog post to them. They usually send back three times they’re free.

  • I can’t stop laughing! I spend half of my working hours trying to schedule conference calls (Doodle, Meeting Wizard). Please apply your considerable wisdom to coming up with some etiquette pointers for those as well

    • Vu

      Thank you. I’m working on that list of etiquette too, and also on how to act when you’re on a conference call.

  • Stewart Sinclair

    Meetings are groups of the unwilling appointed by the unable to perform the unnecessary. Also, a committee is the creature on the planet with more than six legs and no brain.

  • dalehall

    Perfect! We also need to address the ‘notice rule’. Don’t ask me to attend a “Very important collaboration meeting” in two days. I read that as either you are telling me that my participation lacks importance or that you think I should gladly respond to your utter lack of planning.

  • Susan Low

    There needs to be something said about people who propose meetings to “get acquainted” without attempting to explain how ME knowing YOU is going to help me achieve anything in my strategic plan. I’ve had to make up some creative excuses not to schedule meetings with people who are clearly well-meaning but frankly offer very liittle indication that they have the faintest clue what my organization is trying to do. I mean, we do have a website, couldn’t they read it and at least pretend to have one of the three Ts? (Time, Talent, Treasure).