Ten Robert's Rules to Customize - dummies

By C. Alan Jennings, PRP, PRP

If your organization has adopted Robert’s Rules as its parliamentary authority, you’ve got a good rule for just about anything that comes up. However, Robert’s Rules doesn’t try to be one-size-fits-all when it comes to individualizing your own rules. Robert’s Rules encourages you to make your own specific rules and provides you with good information to help you fine-tune your rules as needed.

Change the ten-minute speech rule

Robert’s Rules provides that each member may speak twice to a motion, and each speech may last up to ten minutes.

Even though members rarely claim the right to a full ten minutes, speeches can be time consuming if members do speak that long. And when speech time becomes an issue during a meeting, changing the limits requires a two-thirds vote.

Getting that vote takes time — and unless it’s done on a particular topic before members begin to speak, the first speakers will have been able to speak longer than the members who speak after the limit is adopted.

If you want to save your group some time and trouble, you can consider what limits your group may prefer to work under and adopt a special rule of order to provide a time limit of less than ten minutes.

Define your quorum

Robert’s Rules defines a quorum as the number of members that must be present to conduct business (and Robert’s Rules recognizes only one type of member — the type that has full voting rights). If your group hasn’t defined its quorum, Robert’s Rules does it for you. For most organizations, quorum is a majority of your members.

A majority quorum is fine if your group is small. But if your organization is large, and especially if most people join for the benefits and don’t care about the meetings, you may find yourself unable to hold a legal meeting. As the number of members increases, you will encounter problems in obtaining a quorum. Making reasonable quorum provisions in your bylaws is the best way to prevent this problem.

According to Robert’s Rules, a quorum should be set as the largest number of members that can be reasonably expected to attend all the meetings except in bad weather.

Establish rules related to the quorum

No matter how carefully you consider and define a quorum, membership numbers can change quickly and outpace your ability to reach a quorum under your current rules. If your group faces this problem, you’ll be glad you considered the following rules to help make things easier.

  • Authorize your board to fill its vacancies to achieve a quorum. Organizations with small boards usually have bylaw provisions that authorize the board to fill any board vacancies that occur between election meetings.

    Make a bylaw provision stating that if the number of board members falls below a certain level, the remaining members may accept resignations and fill as many vacancies as necessary to again have a quorum (allowing it to act as a board again).

  • Authorize a mail vote to change an impossible quorum. Place a provision in your bylaws that if your group is unable to achieve a quorum within a specific time and after taking some specified action, the quorum can be amended by mail ballot.

When making provisions for mail ballots, clearly state what vote is required for any issue to be decided in that manner. Also make clear that you have no quorum requirement for votes conducted by mail.

Elect by voice instead of by ballot

Even in groups where it’s abundantly clear that only one candidate is seeking an office and that candidate is practically guaranteed election, a ballot must be taken unless the bylaws make a special provision allowing a voice vote.

Adopt special vote thresholds

Robert’s Rules discusses the wisdom of providing for a low threshold of voters to be able to require a roll-call vote, because a majority is usually unlikely to require itself to go on the record. The standard requirement to order a ballot vote or a counted vote is also a majority.

However, as with roll-call voting, you can eliminate some anxiety if the requirement for these votes is lower than a majority, too.

Authorize a committee to adopt its own rules

Robert’s Rules allows an executive board to adopt special rules of order if they don’t conflict with the organization’s other rules (bylaws, special rules of order, or standing rules). But that doesn’t hold true for committees.

Unless your bylaws, rules, or motion creating a committee provide that your committees can adopt their own rules of procedure, Robert’s Rules prohibits them from doing so. They’re then completely bound by the organization’s bylaws, standing rules, special rules, and the other default rules found in Robert’s Rules.

If your committees work mostly as autonomous bodies, it may be beneficial to make provisions in your bylaws allowing committees to adopt their own rules of procedure.

Authorize spending when adopting budgets

Your finance committee probably takes great pains to work out a good and workable budget, and you likely spend a lot of time going over the budget when it comes up for adoption by your board or organization.

But adopting the budget just shows that members agree on how to spend the organization’s money; it doesn’t authorize the treasurer to write any checks. For that, the treasurer needs some sort of disbursement authorization.

Require an adopted agenda by rule

Have some special rules covering meeting agendas:

  • Provide for an agenda to be sent to members before the meeting

  • Establish procedures for members to submit motions before the meeting

  • Set a particular threshold of votes required to bring up new business that’s not on the agenda

Robert’s Rules provides that you can adopt an agenda at the beginning of a meeting and change it only by a two-thirds vote. By adopting the special rules suggested here, you add the benefits that come with advanced planning, yet you can still deviate from the plan if enough members want to do so.

Adopt a customized order of business

Robert’s Rules provides a logical and workable plan for the order of business for your meetings. Your organization may want to add items to your agenda or do them in a different order. You can play around with the order of business as much as you want, but you need a special rule of order in place to make a permanent change for your meetings.

Break a tie in elections

According to Robert’s Rules, an election to office requires a majority vote unless the bylaws establish some other threshold. Sometimes a tie is the best you can do. Whether you’re faced with a tie between the only two candidates for a single office or a tie between more candidates than there are seats on the board, a tiebreaker bylaw saves you time and frustration.