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Parliamentarians Know the Rules

Last week Americans got a lesson in the important role parliamentarians play in ensuring that organizations do things according to their established rules. Elizabeth MacDonough, parliamentarian of the U.S. Senate, ruled that a proposal to raise the minimum wage could not be part of a COVID-19 relief bill because including it would violate Senate rules. As parliamentarian, her job is to be an expert on the Senate’s complex rules and to render non-partisan recommendations to ensure that actions are legal and accurate.

Although seldom seen in the spotlight, parliamentarians are important because they are responsible for ensuring a fair, democratic, and effective decision-making process. They must have an in-depth understanding of multiple accepted codes of practice such as Robert’s Rules of Order or Mason’s Manual of Legislative Procedure and be experts on the specific rules of a group’s articles of incorporation, bylaws, and procedures. On campus, becoming a parliamentarian would be a useful adjunct to the skills of chiefs of staff, top executive assistants, or for people who work with boards of trustees, university foundations, or alumni associations.

Parliamentarians don’t just operate in the non-profit world. Corporations and entities such as the NCAA often employ them to be present during board of directors’ meetings to be certain rules are followed so that decisions made by elected officials, whether they are corporate leaders running an annual shareholders meeting, officers of local civic groups, or members of boards of trustees, will hold up under scrutiny.

Becoming a parliamentarian doesn’t require a specific degree, but it does demand experience in working with democratic bodies, completing an intense course of study, passing an examination, adhering to a code of ethics, and possessing a talent for memorizing and recalling detail.

The American Institute of Parliamentarians has an extensive web site of resources including courses and information about how to attain the Certified Professional Parliamentarian credential. Of particular use at this moment is a document they have posted entitled, “Opinions for Electronic Meetings,” that addresses how to handle numerous of the unusual governance situations many groups are currently facing.

Other training resources include the National Association of Parliamentarians and several U.S. universities, including some that offer classes online as part of continuing education programs.





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Build A Better Board

Board development is the most important duty of a non-profit executive director, even though those words may never be mentioned in his or her job description.  Having the right board members, and a continual supply of more of the same, makes the difference in whether an organization thrives or shrivels. Building an effective board is not a one and done job, instead, it is a constant exercise in strategy, cultivation, and engagement. A few weeks ago, I posted about building bylaws. Once your bylaws are in order, it’s time to focus on building a better board.

Because board members and the talents they possess are the tools in your tool kit, members should be recruited because they have the skills the organization needs to develop, implement, and sustain its strategic plan. Board members should not be invited simply because they have a high-profile name in the community or they are someone’s friend. An astute executive director looks three to five years down the road to forecast what the needs will be and starts building a list of prospects. For example, if an important fund-raising campaign is on the horizon, grooming and recruiting future board members with track records of fund-raising success is critical. If a major building project is in the offing, recruiting a few members with engineering backgrounds might be useful. If engaging young alumni is a priority, identifying people who fit that category is imperative.

Always strive to develop a diverse board, one that includes a balance of gender, and a wide range of ages and ethnicity. There is strength in diversity and having people with many points of view will help keep your board relevant and prevent it from devolving into a clique.

Board membership should never be a person’s first involvement with your group. Instead, identify board prospects from a list of people who attend your events, are volunteers, and who are donors. These people are your true believers. Start inviting them to additional events, ask them to serve on committees, and engage them more personally. Observe to see if they are reliable and if their interest deepens before approaching them about joining the board. Non- or minimum-level donors should not be board members. Instead, consider these people long-range prospects and begin to increase their involvement in other ways with an eye toward possibly growing them to a higher level of involvement. Having a 100% donor board is important because it gives you credibility when it’s time to ask others for contributions.

Once board prospects are identified, the executive director should meet one-on-one with each possible nominee to describe what is involved. It is important for people to understand the time and financial commitments, length of term, and what the board’s priorities will be during their tenure. Don’t extend a nomination if you hear objections about how much time the board may require, constraints on the person’s availability to attend meetings, or reluctance to support at the required donor level. Listen carefully to avoid accepting a polite “yes” from someone who is flattered to be asked, but who won’t actually fully engage. Never try to persuade someone whose initial answer is “no.”

Once new members are elected, hold an orientation to familiarize them with financial information, bylaws, strategic plans, projects in process, and things like acronyms or other organization slang. Begin to merge old and new board members by holding a planning retreat and assigning everyone to at least one working committee. Create a buddy system where continuing board members are matched with newcomers to serve as guides while the new people learn the ropes.

Make board experience meaningful by giving meaty assignments and being certain everyone is fully engaged in important projects that are consistent with their skills. Making the board experience robust and satisfying will ensure you’ve created an excellent group of ambassadors who will support your cause long after their terms expire, and who will be invaluable in helping you recruit the next batch of great board members.