When COVID-19 cancels your meeting


© Can Stock Photo/werg

Updated 5/11/2020  

We’re having to adjust to a different world right now. In general, it’s always best to have an in-person meeting on matters of great importance. This provides the fullest opportunity to discuss, debate, consider alternatives, and come to agreement. When that’s impossible, you have to look at alternatives. This article lays out the options, as best we understand them, for a nonprofit organization. As always, nothing in this article constitutes legal advice. And things are changing rapidly, so you must keep up to date with the latest rules for your state of incorporation.

State law

The laws of the state in which your organization is incorporated are the first item to check. States have differing requirements for virtual meetings. In Washington State, for instance, we have this guidance for membership meetings, with similar language for board meetings:

Except as otherwise restricted by the articles of incorporation or the bylaws, members and any committee of members of the corporation may participate in a meeting by conference telephone or similar communications equipment so that all persons participating in the meeting can hear each other at the same time. Participation by that method constitutes presence in person at a meeting.  RCW 24.03.075

Many states have made the applicable laws available online for any lay person to read. In some instances, the plain sense of the law is clear. In others, you may need an attorney to interpret the law.

Fundamental principle of remote meetings

Note the key phrase, so that all persons participating in the meeting can hear each other at the same time. This is fundamental to any virtual meeting. Don’t play tricks like the condo manager who left the room, called an absent board member on the telephone, and then returned to announce how the absent member had voted.

There are now emergency orders allowing local government bodies to meet remotely, and some states have authorized nonprofit organizations to do so also. Be sure to check your specific law or orders, and see how long they apply.

Robert’s Rules of Order

Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised, 11th edition, addresses electronic meetings on pp. 97-99. The guidance is that such meetings must be authorized in the bylaws. If Robert’s Rules is your parliamentary authority, even if your state law allows you to meet remotely as in the example above, you can’t do it unless you have adopted that option in your bylaws, or unless there is an emergency order allowing it.

Annual membership meetings

If you are scheduled to have an annual membership meeting in this time of social distancing, and your bylaws don’t allow for remote meetings, what can you do?

The first question to ask is what business needs to be transacted at the meeting. Is it simply an opportunity for the board or staff to report to the members? If there’s no business, Robert’s Rules offers a solution! You can call the meeting, hold it without a quorum, and go home.

If a quorum fails to appear at a regular or properly called meeting, the inability to transact business does not detract from the fact that the society’s rules requiring the meeting to be held were complied with and the meeting was convened—even though it had to adjourn immediately.  P. 347.

Another option is to call the meeting without a quorum and vote to reschedule it to a future time (technically this is called “fix the time to which to adjourn”).

If you decide to hold your annual meeting electronically, there are a host of issues to address. Refer to Jim Slaughter’s article “Let’s Have Our Meeting or Convention Online!” for a review of points to consider.


If you have an election to conduct, do your bylaws authorize a mail-in ballot? This could be one solution to the dilemma. There are also many excellent electronic voting services.

Check your bylaws as to the term of office. If the bylaws say, “for a term of one year,” and the year has gone by, the incumbents are then no longer in office. If the bylaws say, “for a term of one year and/or until their successors are elected,” the incumbents continue in office until you can hold the election.


If you do have important membership business, such as adopting a budget, one option is to hold the meeting electronically, in the teeth of your bylaws and Robert’s Rules, and ratify the decisions the next time you are able to meet properly. “To ratify” in this instance means to vote to approve an action that was improperly taken. It is most commonly used for emergencies. (There are other uses of ratification as well.)

If the body fails to ratify such action, those who took it are personally responsible for any costs or liabilities incurred, because they took it on their own, without the authority of the body. See Robert’s Rules pp. 101-102 and 124-125.

Postpone the meeting due to force majeure

Another option is to postpone the meeting. The board can decide that given the state of emergency, the meeting will be held at a future time. The legal doctrine of “force majeure” refers to an event that is construed as unforeseeable, unanticipated, or uncontrollable, and it may apply here.

Unanimous written consent in lieu of a meeting

For nonprofit boards, in addition to the suggestions above, there is another option. If state law allows, boards can take an action by “unanimous written consent in lieu of a meeting.” In order for this to apply, every single board member must write a written consent to the action proposed. If one of your members is off climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, this won’t work. If one of your members votes against, this won’t work. It has to be truly unanimous. Each and every consent must be included in the minute book. Fax or email may be a way to do this.

We’re all learning new things in this tumultuous time. Whatever course you follow, be sure to consult your attorney! Please let us know what steps you take when COVID-19 cancels your meeting, and whether these suggestions are helpful.

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Ann Macfarlane

Ann G. Macfarlane is a Professional Registered Parliamentarian. She offers an interactive and user-friendly way to master the key points for effective, efficient and fair meetings. Her background as a diplomat and Russian translator enables her to connect with elected officials and nonprofit board directors and give them the tools they need for success. She is the author of Mastering Council Meetings: A guidebook for elected officials and local governments.


  1. Nancy Doran on March 23, 2020 at 11:04 am

    As always, your emails are incredibly timely and valuable. Thank you.

    • Ann Macfarlane on March 23, 2020 at 11:44 am

      So glad to hear it. Thank you Nancy!

  2. Alexa Pag on March 25, 2020 at 10:25 am

    This was so helpful!!! Thank you.

    • Ann Macfarlane on March 25, 2020 at 10:57 am

      So good of you to let us know, Alexa. Thank you!

  3. Linda Koontz on March 27, 2020 at 3:07 pm

    What is the best way to hold elections when your annual (Convention) has been cancelled due to the Corona Virus?

    • Ann Macfarlane on March 27, 2020 at 3:34 pm

      Hi Linda, we don’t see a single answer to this question. I would definitely talk with your attorney. Could you hold them anyway by electronic means? Could you postpone them, and have everyone stay in office until you can hold the election? Your specific circumstances, and your tolerance for risk, will decide. Good luck!

  4. Felicia Irving on April 6, 2020 at 7:01 am

    Hi what do you when your election date has changed? The covid-19 is at its peak or worst at this time. We have stay-home order. Only essential going..

    • Ann Macfarlane on April 6, 2020 at 10:49 am

      Hi Felicia, this question is one that only your body can answer, after talking with your attorney and other responsible parties. It’s going to be a matter of law and policy in your jurisdiction. Wishing you the best!

  5. Jim Lohr on April 7, 2020 at 5:20 pm

    Ann, I love how clearly you write! You explain things in ways few “stuffy professionals” would. And I think that must come from many years’ of experience working for and with the public.
    May I add two thoughts? Your readers will probably realize these already if they have been working with you, but someone new, catching you a first time on the internet, may not.
    1. Remind them to check their bylaws (as well as state laws, articles of incorporation, etc.) carefully any time they have to do something unusual. They may have forgotten what is there and find a gem from a previous crisis, actually designed for a previous, but similar situation. As you know, with Robert at least, their own documents supersede their parliamentary authority.
    2. Encourage them, as soon as coronavirus (or the current crisis) is past, develop an appropriate bylaw or standing rules (etc.) amendment that will cover the situation if it comes up again. I don’t know what your politics are, but while the governor of New York was whining about the lack of hospital equipment, the president either did, or could have, reminded him that that could or should have been done some years ago. And the shoe might also be on the other foot as well. “Pain is an excellent way to teach . . . ” unfortunately, but it is wise to act before the pain is entirely forgotten.
    Keep up the good parliamentary work!

    • Ann Macfarlane on April 7, 2020 at 5:50 pm

      Jim, these are two great points! Thank you so much for sharing them, and for your kind words. Very best – Ann