By Diana Bacon, MBA
Before I have agreed to serve on a board, I learned to ask “Where are your club’s bylaws?” Why did I ask? Many years ago, I was unaware of the “rules” but I later discovered the best kept secrets to effective business meetings. So, for the last two decades, that is the first question I ask before I join an organization or a board of directors.
Whether you are new to or have experience in officer roles, particularly in the role of President, you may have heard of parliamentary procedure. Parliamentary procedure can take years to learn in depth, however, training, self-study, practice, and experience will help you to develop your skills. I learned it over time and you can too!
Let’s start with some basics. Parliamentary procedure (also referred to as parliamentary law) is a body of rules, ethics, and customs governing meetings of clubs and organizations. The organization’s bylaws provide, or should provide, the major rules as well as identify the parliamentary authority, which is likely the current edition of Robert’s Rules of Order, Newly Revised (RONR). RONR contains information on the nature and importance of bylaws, quorum, voting, nominations and elections, officers, committees, reports and minutes as well as different categories of motions.
RONR is a very useful manual containing general principles to be used by ordinary societies and clubs. The principles of parliamentary procedure are based on the rights of the majority; the minority, especially a strong minority; absentees; and, all of these together. The principles of RONR relate to the principles of good governance, which are: follows the rule of law; equitable and inclusive; effective and efficient; participatory; responsive; transparent; and, accountable. RONR provides the methods of organizing and conducting meetings and handling motions in systematic way that makes good sense. Why try to reinvent the wheel or wing it when there is a book that contains everything you need to know for every situation related to meetings?
The questions I am often asked include, “We are just a small group, so why would we need formality?” or “What about rules for small groups of not more than 12 members?” Typically, smaller assemblies of people usually require less control than larger assemblies. RONR provides the guidance on exceptions for small boards or committees. The exceptions to the rules include: the chair does not need to rise while putting the question to a vote; chair may speak informally and in debate and vote; members may speak while seated; there is no requirement for a second; there is no limit to the number of times a member can speak to a debatable question; informal discussion is permitted while no motion pending; and, voting may be by a show of hands.
However, with this degree of flexibility, there are often occasions even in small board or committee meetings that may require motions to limit or close debate, including limiting the number of times a member can speak to a question. Have you attended meetings that went on and on and were not productive? RONR can help with that and, of course, the chair need not be stricter than necessary for the good of the meeting.
RONR helps meetings run smoothly and allows a group to come to decisions fairly. As a rule, RONR should be followed as a practice of good governance as well as to comply with the club’s bylaws (constitution). The value of parliamentary procedure is the processes provided to work out solutions to the greatest number of questions in the least amount of time in whatever detail or complexity decided by the group. The processes make sense and make for much more effective meetings. That is why RONR is written in the bylaws as the parliamentary authority. As the saying goes, it is better to be prepared rather than wait until you are in a difficult situation. Learning RONR will help you and your group to be prepared!