There’s nothing I enjoy more than meetings. Particularly meetings with the donor, who’s the person who’s supposed to sign the checks that makes sure you have a job for just a little bit longer. So while you may work for the good of the people of [fill in the name of the pile of smoking rubble you’re standing on that people insist is still a country], you actually work for the donor.
And donors love nothing more than holding meetings. Some common varieties are:
- Synch meetings
- Coordination meetings
- Working group meetings
- Budget meetings
And the dreaded, avoid-at-all-costs:
- Pre meeting
This last one’s the one you have before the really big meeting, so you can all go over what you’re going to talk about at the actual meeting. That meeting will usually involve multiple donors all brought together for some kind of conference or seminar or something else equally mind numbing. Those meetings generate things like “action plans” which are promptly forgotten or subtly sidetracked because coordination means someone’s going to have to share with others, and that’s not how development work is done.
But rather than just surviving these meetings, here’s a handy guide for coming out of those meetings looking like someone who a) genuinely cares about the work you’re doing, and b) is a recognized thought leader among your peers. (Put that last one on a LinkedIn profile…it’s CV gold.)
1. Ask for milestones
This is a great way to get a lot of nods and approving noises from those around the table. It’s also a great way to throw a peer under the bus, and if it’s not a peer, good times can be had by all as you watch that person scramble to explain the various milestones in their amazing five year plan.
2. Use “sustainability” whenever possible
This ties back to the first one, because if something doesn’t have “milestones” it’s probably not going to be “sustainable.” Asking any presenter if they have a sustainability plan usually yields the same fun as the milestone question.
3. Flip through the handout while the presenter is still talking
Nothing tells a room “I’m already thinking a few steps ahead” better than rustling paper and moving ahead through slides that haven’t been presented yet. Combine this with questions about sustainability and you’re sure to get that next Chief of Party gig.
4. Make notes on upcoming slides
This reinforces the idea that you’re looking ahead, past the point which your presenter is making, and are about to make some kind of statement that should make the rest of the group start shuffling through the handout as well.
5. Say, “I don’t see a gender component.”
Letting the group know you care very much about gender issues is something that will endear you to peers and supervisors alike. Donors love people who are looking for the gender angle even if the project is the artificial insemination of goats in the Andes mountains. It also puts the presenter on the spot and usually means they get to scramble to make that point out of sequence with their other slides.
6. Start a few sentences with variations on “I’m worried that…”
- I’m worried that we’re not reaching the children enough with this.
- I’m concerned about the optics of that distribution plan.
- I’m guess I’m not sure how that can be sustainably implemented.
Nothing shows insight in development work like vague concerns. And you’ll never have to explain that concern because someone else in the room will second your thought immediately. Since you’re already planning on leaving the meeting early to demonstrate how busy you are, you’ve just generated about 15 minutes of discussion which means you won’t have to hear many of the rest of the slides.
7. Suggest a follow on working group.
Once the discussion generated by #6 has gone on long enough, speak up and suggest that a follow on working group be convened to deal with that particular issue. It sounds like you’re creating more work for yourself, but one of two things happen now:
- Everyone is secretly hoping this won’t happen since it will mean more meetings. So you can keep re-scheduling that working group until everyone who was at the meeting leaves the country.
- Someone wanting to make a name for themselves will volunteer to chair that group. And then they’ll execute the plan in #1.
8. Humorously reference the ineffectiveness of bureaucracy.
During the course of the meeting, which is keeping anyone in the room from doing any actual real work, make an offhand comment like, “Well, you how long THAT’S going to take.” This is a tricky one, since the people who actually slow your work down are probably sitting around the table at the moment, so use carefully.
9. Openly mock the standing government.
The only real barrier to your success as a development organization is whoever’s currently sitting in the presidential palace/mansion/hut/hovel. You and the donor are the most effective team ever assembled for this kind of work, and the plans you’ve collectively put together would be an unmitigated success if not for the policies of the president/king/high lord of all he surveys.
10. Leave early because of a field visit.
No one in a development meeting would dream of keeping anyone from visiting the field. This is effective for a few reasons:
- A lot of the people in the room have never been to “the field,” so they will be suitably impressed and will see your value to the organization
- Your friends in the room (and there won’t be many) will be impressed with your temerity, since they know you don’t have one
- If questioned later, you can complain that security canceled the movement because they don’t understand the real work that’s being done here.
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