Nonprofit Management Tips: Keep Brainstorm Sessions Brief

If you had to guess as a nonprofit management professional, how long do you think a brainstorm meeting should last for maximum results? 30 minutes? an hour? Two hours or more?

The answer, according to ESC Volunteer Consultant Jack C. Smith, is as little as 10 minutes. His “Effective Facilitation Skills for Leaders and Emerging Managers” workshop identifies brainstorming as one of three vital problem solving techniques alongside the Nominal Group Technique and Force Field Analysis (both of which we will explore at a later date); so, despite the light time commitment, short brainstorming sessions should be approached as seriously as any longer meeting type.

Jack’s facilitation for nonprofits presentation shows the number of ideas during a brain storming session peak just after the 6-minute mark. The decline over the next four minutes is significant, and indicates that meeting attendees’ critical thinking begins to slow down at this time. Of course, brainstorming sessions do not have to be cut at the ten-minute mark–significant ideas can occur after 20 or 30 minutes of work–but this type of meeting should run no longer than one half hour, as new ideas are severely diminished by this time.

Idea Flow of Brainstorm graphic

Brainstorming sessions can be quick ways to add to your organization’s growth, but Jack notes that these types of meetings have unique pros and cons any nonprofit management professional should take into account just as seriously as with longer meeting types.

The greatest benefit of brainstorming meetings is that they encourage creativity. These quick, collaborative sessions are so important to workplace creativity that Inc. Magazine says managers should make them a required task for employees. Nonprofits can adapt this habit by setting 10 minutes aside for brainstorming during board, volunteer or staff meetings, and even by highlighting this piece of office culture in strategic planning efforts.

While brainstorming gives nonprofits certain leverages, it also has its downsides: first, the quick-draw, free-for-all setting can allow a small number of participants to dominate; secondly, the nature of brainstorming sessions does not include a way to prioritize the discussed information. To balance this, those in charge of facilitation for nonprofits should conduct complimentary strategies like the Nominal Group Technique–this encourages wider participation, allows a group to narrow down and prioritize information, and can apply to groups of all sizes. We will discuss this and other facilitation topics next week.

ESC of New England provides affordable capacity building and management consulting in a variety of areas including facilitation, strategic management and program evaluation.

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