Governance of a membership organisationJust because a membership organisation does not have shareholders, does not mean that it can ignore its governance.

Members need clarity to understand who is making decisions on their behalf. Those in elected positions, such as a Board or Council, need clarity to appreciate what is expected of them. Who makes decisions and how they are elected needs to be robust and clear to all.

Professional bodies and trade associations handle their governance differently. This post refers to professional bodies whose governance is split into two areas:

  1. Elected representatives – the Board and Council or Trustees … there are a variety of names for this elected body … who are elected by the membership
  2. Staff – the senior management team (SMT) who are paid members of staff

The elected representatives generally set the strategic direction of the organisation and the SMT/staff bring it to life.

With the elected Board/Council having responsibility for setting the strategy it is essential the wider membership is empowered to elect them – they must not be in post because they know someone influential. Openness and transparency are fundamental and the elected members / officials must understand who they are accountable to … the voting members.

Election aheadI have witnessed great disparity in the way elections are handled by professional bodies – from providing members with a simple list of names and job titles to choose from, to full-blown 500 word statements from each candidate. The former means members choose solely on the basis of name recognition or job status rather than a pledge for what the individual will do in office. The latter perhaps gives members an information overload that they will not bother to read, perhaps favouring those listed early on.

My preference is for more rather than less information on each candidate and it is then my choice how much I read and digest. I want to know what a candidate wants to achieve to make sure I agree with their direction before I vote for them, and not rely on them being well-known or having a top job and hoping they think the same as I do. Candidate statements aid transparency, names on a list foster secrecy, suspicion and mistrust

So to my title of the good, the bad and the (downright) ugly …

As an example, I am using the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) which is in the throes of an election at the time of writing. It is a double-whammy as in an even year such as this (2016) members vote for both the Council and President. In an odd year the election is just for a President.  NB: The Board is re-elected every year from current Council members.
* Disclaimer: I am a current Board and Council member at the CIPR and am standing for re-election to Council this year.

The Good

The CIPR Presidential election currently in play definitely reflects the good days – there are three candidates willing to be President and none of them can be considered part of an ‘inner circle’* – more on this later.

  1. Sarah Hall (@Hallmeister) was part of what could be called an inner circle having been on the Board and Council for a number of years, except she resigned from both in June 2015.
  2. Emma Leech (@EmmaJ70) is joint lead assessor of the CIPR’s flagship Chartered Practitioner programme and a past Council Member.
  3. Gary Taylor (@GaryTaylorPR), I suppose is the nearest to being on the inside as he is a current member of the CIPR Council

All, therefore, have done time on the ‘inside’ so understand how the CIPR functions from the inside out. Some think this inside knowledge is valuable for a President, others think it is not necessary. My opinion is the former.

Having three people willing to be President gives members a wonderful choice and provides an open race. Gary and Emma both work in-house, Sarah is agency side – so a cross-spectrum of the environments in which members work. The members who have nominated them are clearly listed – openness and transparency at their best.

There is ample opportunity for members to make up their own mind on who is their preferred candidate. Before voting opened, the three Presidential candidates took part in a live hustings aired on YouTube and recorded for later viewing, linked to from the CIPR website. Members were given the opportunity to attend and submit questions which were put to each of the candidates.

At the time of writing, the YouTube video (in its entirety of just over an hour) shows 108 views. Each candidate also recorded their own video at the hustings and these are hosted alongside the main video. To date, Sarah Hall’s has 169 views, Emma Leech has received 236 views, and Gary Taylor’s 104 views. As anyone in PR should know, the number of views is not indicative of the eventual outcome, i.e. more views does not necessarily correlate with that candidate winning. I include this information as a demonstration of the openness and transparency being afforded to members in that they can hear first-hand what each candidate has to say – and obviously are, although not in great numbers.

Members are able to watch the videos, read the candidate statements, engage with the candidates on social media … and then make up their own minds. There is nothing cloak and dagger. The election regulations are public, the nominators for each candidate are public, the candidates and what they stand for are public, social media has allowed members to make public who they are supporting – should they wish to.

This election for the 2018 CIPR President is refreshing in its transparency. This is definitely a good thing.

The Bad

Thumbs up or down

In the not too distant past the CIPR was not unlike many other professional bodies in that people in the perceived ‘inner circle’* approached a member (usually someone already on the Board or Council) to ask them to stand as President … it was their turn, if you like. Once this person agreed, they could have stood unopposed or come up against someone from outside the ‘inner circle’* who would often be defeated – perhaps this outside person did not know enough members to encourage them to vote.  Sometimes, if someone perceived to be on the ‘inside’ stood for election, other members would decide not to, believing they did not stand a chance.  No election.  No member choice.

As a result, the status quo was maintained.

These tap-on-the-shoulder or uncontested elections are not good governance. They do nothing to build trust in the membership that their ‘leader’ represents their interests, but unfortunately, are not an unusual situation to occur in a professional body.  Being the President of a large professional body can be onerous and is most definitely time-consuming so is not suited to all – their paymaster/s need to be supportive.

This reflects the bad days and I am delighted that the current CIPR Presidential election is nothing like this.

The Ugly

Now to the downright ugly … so far, after one week of campaigning and the third of 12 days of voting, there have been rumblings of foul play and the election being biased / loaded, unfairly influencing members, etc. This is because current CIPR Officers (immediate Past President and President-elect) have said publicly that they support the same candidate (the immediate Past President wrote a blog post announcing that she was coming down off the fence) and the President-Elect has tweeted that he supports said candidate.

What has prompted the ‘it’s not fair’ rumblings is that this public and visible endorsement by Officers is unprecedented – largely due to the fact of the prevalence of social media. In the past, Officers will have said publicly which candidate they prefer, but this would have been done in private conversation or via email, not broadcast to tens of thousands via Twitter.

To bleat ‘this is unfair’ smacks of a school playground (cue childish voice) and there is no place for this in grown-up society and professional elections. To say such an endorsement is biasing the election sounds to me like the openness and transparency have not been recognised or appreciated … or members not being given credit for having their own minds.

Your vote is your voice

CIPR members are intelligent people, they are not sheep. The openness and transparency of the election process, along with all the other reasons laid out above, provide many opportunities for members to make up their own mind and not be swayed. They should, and will, make an intelligent decision on their own and not rely on endorsement from any quarters.  Members have been independently tweeting that all statements should be read before a decision on who to vote for is made:

I have read about concerns there will be a discordant Board and Council if an ‘unfavoured’ candidate is elected and becomes President, i.e. Chair of the Board and Council. Really?

The Board, Council and CIPR is bigger than one person and as volunteers we give our time, energy and commitment to the whole membership and profession, and are not there to stab anyone in the back and hinder progress.

Seriously, these dissenters need to give the elected members the credit and respect they deserve for their maturity to work with a leader even if they preferred someone else. Is this not life? I have certainly had to work with people whom I may respect but not think was the best person for the job – you have to find a way to make it work and I am confident that the Board and President of 2018 will do so.

So for those verbalising that there is an unfair advantage given to one candidate, and are ignoring the fact that this election is the most open and transparent and widely contested for many a year, I say … grow up. You are making this election ugly … unnecessarily.

My conclusion

The more open and transparent an election, in terms of who is standing, their manifesto / pledges, their nominators and supporters, the better. For clarity of who will lead the profession, how they were elected to the position, and what they stand for, the voting members need to have all the above available to them. Conversely, the candidates need to remember that they are accountable to the membership – the entire membership – and should believe their pledges are achievable and not given themselves a hostage to fortune.

Vote for your PresidentMembers of professional bodies are not stupid. When faced with an abundance of information about each candidate they are able to make their own decisions on who to choose – to suggest they will be easily swayed and not weigh up the information at their disposal is derogatory. There will always be members – influential or not – who favour one candidate over another and to think they should be gagged and not express their preference would be naïve and a return to the bad old days.  For the membership organisations I am a member of, and those I have worked for, I would want to know that endorsements are public rather than manoeuvrings or rumblings behind the scene or an ‘old boys network’.

I suggest that the number of people who express support for a candidate via a drumbeat of endorsements on social media, for example, is more influential than knowledge of certain individuals who come out in support.

In summary, for a membership organisation to have a clear governance structure and contested elections for the top member job, can only be a very good thing for its members.  This will give members assurance that their interests are in safe hands.

* Inner Circle – every membership organisation has an inner circle and it will change from year to year. If I was being unkind, I would call it a clique. If I was being generous, I would call it the people who wield the most influence.

Have you experienced the good, the bad or the ugly in a membership organisation?