From time to time when working through bylaws with a client, someone will say, “Shouldn’t we put something in about Robert’s Rules? Don’t we need to use them?” To which I will usually reply, “No.”
Robert’s Rules of Order was written by Brigadier General Henry Martyn Robert in 1876, right here in New Bedford, at the First Baptist Church on William Street. Gen. Robert felt compelled to write the Rules allegedly because he had failed miserably in leading a meeting at the church.
A couple of principles underlie Robert’s Rules.
First is the idea of control. The Rules are intended to allow the Chair to control a meeting, to lead it. We’ve all been in meetings that have devolved into free-for-alls with everyone talking at once. The Rules allow the Chair to conduct the meeting much as an orchestra conductor does the orchestra, mellowing the louder strident voices, bringing forward the softer notes.
Another key idea is that of deliberation. The Rules are intended to enable a Board–a “deliberative assembly”– to conduct an efficient meeting; the idea is to allow for evaluation of information and opinion, while ensuring that all pertinent views are heard; the result is that decisions on matters simple to complex can be made efficiently. The law values this deliberation highly–this is why boards must meet and act together, and why all directors must be able to hear each other in a meeting. The Chair must foster this deliberation through his or her control of the meeting, ensuring that all those who have something to say pertinent to the decision at hand may speak and be heard.
Robert’s Rules are just that–rules. The book is over 600 pages long. Robert set out to provide a few rules by which to conduct an efficient meeting, but the project soon took on a life of its own, as questions arose and were answered. Today, a number of shorter versions are available–”cheat sheets” and quick reference sheets, along with the official Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised In Brief, which itself runs to about 200 pages.
And that is the problem. The Rules are complex, and they must be thoroughly understood to be effective. Unless your organization has someone willing to serve as Parliamentarian and to master the minutiae, the Rules are likely to be more burdensome to your organization than helpful, more time-consuming than time-efficient.
The typical nonprofit board of directors with its 7 to 15 directors does not need Robert’s Rules. Instead, I propose the following points:
- Choose a Chair who can maintain firm control of a meeting; that is, someone who is willing and able to ask the long-winded directors to stop speaking so the more reticent can get a word in edgewise, as well as to methodically invite those reticent souls to speak to the issue.
- Lay down basic values: that participation is required, that all comments on topic are valued, that each director must respect the rights of the other directors to have their opinions and to voice them, that meetings will be civil and courteous. Your board will likely find a few key values of its own. Put them in writing and adopt them, or ask all board members to sign off on them as part of their orientation to the board.
- Develop a simple protocol that works for your board: No one speaks unless recognized by the Chair; everyone with a pertinent comment on the issue will be allowed to speak; no one will speak for more than 3 minutes at any one time (or however long is appropriate to your board, depending on its size, time allotted for meetings, and the like); etc. Again, adopt it and include it in orientation materials.
- Require that motions be stated as simply and precisely as possible, and that they are repeated as needed, to facilitate discussion and for the Secretary to accurately capture them.
- Eliminate lengthy reports; provide them instead in writing to directors prior to the meeting. If everyone has read the reports prior to the meeting, the board can cut to the chase and discuss the issues that need action.
- Set expectations. That everyone comes to the meeting, and comes prepared –to speak, listen, debate, and decide.
This is not to say that your organization will never need Robert’s Rules–it might. If your organization finds itself continuing to update, revise, and tweak its self-created protocol because none of its rules covers quite every situation, if meetings still get out of hand such that decision-making suffers, it may be time to try Robert’s Rules. Study them. Test them at several meetings. But don’t add them to your bylaws until your organization is willing and ready to commit to them.