Membership Options

The type of membership structure you decide to have will say a great deal about how you plan to relate to the broader community, so examining a number of options makes sense. Each option carries its own set of advantages and disadvantages. The by-law examples in the CD present one option, but you are certainly not limited to them.

Membership Limited to the Board

This is an entirely valid option, wherein the board is also the entire voting membership. It nominates itself into office and then determines, by whatever means agreed to, how the organization will operate.

Particularly in the formative stages, this option limits outside distractions from diverting the board while allowing it to remain focused on the immediate work that needs to be done.

Any decision the board makes regarding the type of membership to adopt, or for that matter any other decision appearing in the by-laws, can always be changed when the board of directors approves it. Adjusting membership requirements is a relatively common adjustment that many organizations make to their by-laws as they grow.

The disadvantage of this option is simply the reverse. Since it excludes participation at the decision-making level by members of the community, it may potentially lead to feelings of resentment among those who are not able to vote. This is not to suggest that the public cannot be involved in the organization. Once board decisions have been made, the board may invite anyone they want to implement those decisions. Those invited individuals, whether community volunteers or paid staff, are just not voting members of the board.

The board is always free to invite guests to any meeting to participate in discussions and offer expertise. Likewise, members of the community who are active in the organization may ask to be invited. The only limitation is that when the time comes for a decision, only board members participate.

Membership Open to the Community

This option opens the membership to people outside the board of directors, using clearly established criteria. Membership may require nothing more than active participation. There may be different membership levels, ranging from those who can vote to those who are simply on a mailing list.

”Care” of the membership must be taken into consideration if you decide to have any version of an open membership policy. While members can be a wonderful asset to the organization and much can be said in their favor, there will be ongoing commitments such as mailings, possible elections, and other administrative tasks throughout the life of your organization. If you choose that route from the beginning, make sure you have the resources to maintain this work.

The advantage of an open membership system is that your organization will appear more inclusive and not prone to claims of cliquishness among the leadership. The disadvantage is that it does open your organization to the possibility of political maneuvering by any determined group interested in forcing its agenda. This possibility can be mitigated by how board members are nominated, and the danger decreases as the organization matures, but it is something to keep in mind.

Mixing and Matching

The third option is to combine elements of the other options so that you and the organization can be inclusive and still able to conduct the necessary work for your group. You can establish levels of membership that range from being on your mailing list to active membership that may involve voting rights

Even if you choose not to have members, a mailing list of active people in the community, regardless of their legal membership status, will become a useful fundraising tool (Chapter 11). Such a list is tangible evidence of the necessary community support your organization has established.

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