Beyond Robert’s Rules of Order

The blog has been quiet for the last few days because Jon and I decided to stick a short vacation between work and picking up one of our sons from camp where he’s been a counselor this summer. (Short vacation hops to Cape Cod and Portland, Maine – lovely)

The camp, Friends Camp, is run by New England Yearly Meeting of Friends and seeks to embody the Quaker values of community, equality, integrity, peace, & simplicity.

On the way to Friends Camp this year, I had the chance to think about the consensus decision-making process that is used by the Society of Friends and how foreign it feels from Robert’s Rules of Order that so many nonprofit boards try to use.

I was fortunate that I began my nonprofit board service on a board that used Quaker Consensus Process — the area committee of the Rhode Island office of the American Friends Service Committee. Though I’m not a Quaker, I soon came to value a meeting process that sought building unity as a goal of its decision-making. I’ve always felt that it was a great starting place for my work as a facilitator.

I had the opportunity early on to compare AFSC’s process with policy-making forum at Amnesty International USA which used Robert’s Rules.

For those of you who’d like more on the differences, this article on outlines a few of the differences between Robert’s Rules and Consensus Process.

First, I have to say, I never felt that I got a good handle on Robert’s Rules complex parliamentary process. It was more satisfying to me to participate in AFSC’s consensus process. However, for a consensus process to work well, the participants have to be willing to observe the norms of the group. There are clearly pros and cons to each different type of process.

What I appreciated about Quaker process is its goal to enable the emergence of an action or agreement that has a high degree of unity and support from the group – without creating winners and losers.

What I’ve found especially striking is the difference in the role of the person who is facilitating the meeting. I’ve always felt that the role of the chair in a Robert’s Rules controlled meeting is to ensure a tidy and controlled process that gets to a vote. The word “chair” carries with it a high sense of authority, control and deference to.

The facilitator in Quaker process is called a clerk and not a chair. Just the name alone signals that the clerk’s purpose is subservient to the group (I’ve always felt that too many board chairs think they run the organization or the board — more on that another time). The clerk as facilitator works in partnership with the other participants to share responsibility for a meeting process that allows dialogue, participation, and thoughtful reflection.

Anyway, just a quick thought on a Saturday afternoon that I’ll write more about later.

I’m thankful that my children (all three attended Friends Camp) have had the benefit of attending a camp where they too can experience a different way of being in group and making decisions.


4 responses to Beyond Robert’s Rules of Order

  1. John W K Overbey

    While consensus techniques can be useful for team building, they are not always amenable to the dissenter, who is often taken aside and admonished for being disagreeable and out of consensus.
    There is a new book called Robert’s Rules of Order In Brief, which I recommend for all those who are leary about the finer points of parliamentary procedure. Robert’s Rules of Order balances the rights of the majority with those of large minorities (greater than 1/3), the individual, and the absentee. It also tracks business through the use of motions, so that progress is measured, recorded, and efficiently handled.
    Yes, I am a registered parliamentarian.
    PS – I like your blog layout.

  2. Gayle Gifford Post Author

    Thanks for the parliamentarian perspective. I think another way to ensure that diverse viewpoints are at the table is to do some advance work ala Larry Susskind’s “Breaking Roberts Rules of Order.”

  3. Barbara Phillips

    Gayle – Permission is needed to access the comparison you refer to from Earlham College I’m on a nonprofit board and am looking for useful material on alternatives to RRs. I remember reading somewhere that Robert’s Rules were originated for the conduct of Parliament and Parliament has never used them. Can’t recall where. Would appreciate help. It’s good to see your blog. Thanks. Barbara

    • Gayle Gifford

      Thank you for alerting me to the change in the link in the years since this blog post was written. I’ve updated with a link to a different site, but another good explanation of the differences between Robert’s Rules parliamentary process and Consensus decision making.

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