Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Maternity organisations - members

A maternity organisation may have begun with a small number of members who all worked together towards an agreed end. These people met and talked and each one learned how they could contribute to the work. They saw the need to formalise their structure, so they obtained a model constitution, adapted it to their needs, and became incorporated. Money was needed, so a membership fee established. A treasurer was chosen, and bank account set up. The rules required certain other office bearers, and before long it was time for annual reports and financial audits and an annual general meeting.

The decision making process in a maternity organisation has usually been, in my experience, based on consensus. While everyone is working together, this style has worked well. Members of the organisation's executive are likely to reach agreement quickly, with minimal debate, on proposed actions. The person who proposes a course of action is often the one who takes leadership of that project on behalf of the organisation. There does not seem to be a need for a parliamentary style of motions being seconded, discussion, amendments, more discussion, and voting.

Is consensus decision-making any less robust or reliable than the parliamentary style? I asked this question years ago when I was a beginner in voluntary associations. I was told that the consensus style is more feminist, while parliamentary style is more male. Female processing makes a lot of sense for anything maternity! For the time being I accepted that explanation.

Today I would say that although I still support the consensus style, this should not be confused with complacency. I see every member of a committee as having responsibility for the actions of people on behalf of that committee or board or group. It is important that proposed actions be agreed upon, and the notes of the meeting record the fact. It's also important that someone follow through and report progress until the action is completed. It's all too easy to sit back and expect someone else to do the work. It's also dangerous if the group becomes a rubber stamp committee, when one person dominates the meeting, and everyone else agrees without using their own minds to question or engage in critical review. As the complexity and cost of projects increases, so does the expectation of transparency and accountability.

As more members are signed up into the maternity organisation, and more money is brought into the organisation's bank account, there is an increasing amount of work for someone acting on behalf of the committee to process and manage memberships. As a volunteer organisation, the committee depends on volunteers whose skill or commitment may be more or less competent or available at particular times, for all sorts of reasons. A reliable process of managing membership subscriptions, so that membership lists are kept up to date, and financial accounting can be correct, becomes essential. It becomes increasingly expensive if paid professional services are engaged to do the work. Yet a point will be reached where the volume of work and the skill required exceeds that which can be reasonably expected of a volunteer.

Maternity organisations will always need volunteers who are elected by members to manage the work of the organisation. As the organisation grows, prudent planning by its office bearers can ensure succession planning for the various positions. An organisation that has annual elections for all office bearers is put at risk of losing corporate knowledge if there is a large turnover. The rules can be changed to protect the organisation from this, by having, for instance, three-year terms of office, and a requirement for only one-third of the office bearers' positions to be voted on each year. However the advantage of having one-year terms is that office bearers who are not performing well can potentially be voted out sooner rather than later.


Lisa Barrett said...

Sounds a bit animal farmish to me. I find that most maternity organisations run better when not paliamentry style. As soon as it becomes dictatorial I cloud over. Also This style breeds resentment. It really is a mans world.

Anonymous said...

Don't get me wrong - I am proud of my Greek ancestry, and all that this ancient culture produced. One of the things I am passionate about is the notion of "democracy", and all that this notion entails.

However much I am honoured that my ancestors gave this gift to Western Civilisation, there is also the acknowledgement that "the vote" was not extended to women or slaves - in fact, suffrage was not universal (and the recent celebrations of womens' right to vote here in Victoria is testament to the fact at how slow things change sometimes...).

I was incredibly humbled when I learnt about the consensus-style process of self-governance that the Iroquois Nations of North-Eastern America had. These cultures were sedentary farmers who lived in solidly-built houses - as far removed from the romantic image of plains-dwelling nomads from American Westerns in many ways. These people did not make decisions until all the people of the tribe/clan/household/etc were in agreeance with the decision and its possible outcome. No decisions were rushed; no votes were taken. They accepted that decisions needed to benefit the whole community, and as such all peoples - women, men, young warriors and maidens, and the elderly alike - had a say in that decision. If it took several days before a consensus was reached, then so be it. There was always the awareness that the peace and stability of the community required consensus decisions.

Even though these people did not build grand monuments like the Parthenon, and write epic poems such as the Iliad or Odyssey, and have such wide and extensive trade routes over land and sea, they were advanced enough to understand the importance of such a notion. I have no doubt that if Socrates himself had witnessed the Iroquois culture, he would have applauded it, and been moved to urge his fellow Athenians to adopt such a model of governance.

And you know what: so would I !!!!