If You're Not Having a Debate at Your Nonprofit's Elections, Try This | Track It Forward

If You're Not Having a Debate at Your Nonprofit's Elections, Try This

Written by James McBryan

Elections seem so unnecessary sometimes.  There are no speeches, hardly any nominations, and definitely no debate.  I've seen this happen for boards of directors and steering committees alike. Unfortunately, it feels more like a guilt-trip spree to get people involved.  Why even have an election in the first place?


If you're new to volunteer organizing, it may seem odd.  However what you'll soon learn is that they have some by-laws where elections are critical.  I'm not sure where this originated from, it probably passed down through the democratic roots of our nations, but there actually is real value in elections.  If elections are done right you'll assemble the "A team", but if you don't, you might as well just have appointed them instead.



Identify the Core Candidates before the Election


The leaderships roles in your group, usually a core group of roles with the highest responsibilities, should honestly be identified and elected first.  They are the ones who should be running the elections, they are most interested in assembling the right team with the right roles, and they want to make sure it goes well rather than the out-going group.


We haven't done this yet at The Breakaway since we have been focusing more on retention so our core roles have stayed steady so far, however I know we’ll be reaching this point soon and our hope is to be proactive with it.



Make Sure the Roles Match the Resources


When each new election cycle hits, the responsibilities of the previous term automatically get passed on to the new term.  However, your group might have evolved or maybe your organization might not have the right individuals to fill those roles.  All too much I see the previous processes continuing just for ease, I'd argue to be a little proactive and shape the processes for the current times.


At The Breakaway, before every election so far, we have done an assessment to identify the key responsibilities, eliminate the unnecessary tasks, and break apart or consolidate roles based off of what we've learned.  By doing it this way, we make sure roles are necessary and aren't too intimidating, making them attractive for our membership.  Currently we have a “Roles and Responsibilities” document that is on it’s 5th revision.



Nominate in Advance and with Care


Usually, nominations happen at a meeting where people just shout each other's names.  It really feels like some kind of ancient shouting fest and if it's not like that, it's completely opposite with awkward silence.   Instead, you should allow members to nominate in advance and explain why they think that individual would be ideal for that role.  


Recently, I circulated an electronic survey a week in advance and had people explain why they think that individual is the right fit.  Afterward, I published the results for everyone to see, and it was really heartfelt and we had multiple individuals for each role.  And during the meeting where it would normally be the nominating shoutfest, instead, it was nomination acceptances.  By doing this in advance, you can actually make sure the right people get filled for the right roles and even prepare yourself just in case some of the roles aren't filled in!



Why the Debate is Important


Elections are pointless without debates.  The best elections I've been at are ones where multiple nominees state why they want the role and the membership gets to ask questions.  This really makes sure you have serious candidates and allows members to have a choice.  


If you are lucky enough to have these debates, make sure you set a proper proceedings and time limits.  If done well, these can be a lot of fun despite the nerves for the candidates.  At one of the last elections we had, we really honor all individuals who participated, cheer them on, and gave them a cupcake party for stepping and being part of the process.



If you have to have an election, just make sure you do it right.  If you are an out-going president or if you'll have to do this one day, leave a legacy, and what better way than through setting up the next term for an "A-team" that it deserves.


If you've had successful elections before, I want to know!  What worked?  What didn't?  I and all the other organizers reading this blog want to know.  Leave a comment below.  Let's combine our knowledge together to create better practices for all of us out there.