Robert’s Rules of Order was first published in 1876, yet remains firmly relevant to running meetings in today’s world. From legislative chambers to corporate conference rooms, the meeting standards outlined in this book are used to govern decision-making about everything from the taxes you pay to the device you’re reading this on.
The guide, often referred to as Robert’s Rules, details a meeting process where each member of a group has equal weight as expressed by vote. This democratic approach has a sticky effect. The 11th edition of Robert’s Rules was published in 2011, and while that isn’t quite ancient history, meetings and technology have evolved quite a bit in 135 years.
We think Robert’s Rules could benefit from a little modern interpretation, so here it is! We’ll also include a cheat sheet at the end, and a little information about when not to use Robert’s Rules of Order in your meetings.
But first, let’s start at the beginning.
Order of business = agenda priorities.
Every good meeting is centered around an agenda, which outlines meeting goals and a plan to reach them. According to Robert’s Rules, it’s important to take care of old business before moving on to new business. To that end, Robert’s order of business prioritizes agenda items:
- Reading and approval of previous meeting’s minutes, or notes
- Reports of officers, boards, and standing committees
- Reports of special committees
- Special orders (these include time-specific or time-sensitive business, such as elections)
- Unfinished business and general orders
- New business
Of course, none of these steps are mandatory. If there was no previous meeting on a topic, for example, then there are no meeting notes to approve. Similarly, there may be no reports, special orders, or unfinished business. Some meetings, on the other hand, exist simply to close out old business, and that’s okay too.
Every meeting organizer needs to decide which priorities will help reach the goals of the meeting. Once that is complete, creating a meeting agenda or using available templates like the one below should be easy:
Quorum = minimum attendance.
In order for attendees to conduct business on behalf of a larger group, a quorum is required. A quorum is the minimum attendance necessary to make motions and vote without under-representing the group’s membership. For example, if only three people of a ten-person board are present, they can’t reasonably vote on issues that affect the entire organization.
What constitutes a quorum varies from one organization to another. It is typically defined by governing documents, and in the case of a committee or board, defined by someone who is not a member of either.
A chair, or meeting organizer, will determine whether minimum attendance is met. How can the chair assure high attendance at modern meetings? We recommend:
- Sending meeting invitations early, and to all relevant people
- Using an accessible invitation method that makes it easy to RSVP
- Including the agenda with the invitation, so invitees understand the meeting’s importance
If meeting attendance is too low, Robert’s Rules dictate that the only appropriate actions are taking measures to achieve quorum, recessing, adjusting meeting end-time, or ending the meeting. No quorum means no valid motions until quorum is achieved.
Motions = idea generation and discussion.
Motions are the meat of a meeting: the reason they tend to take place. They are the ideas presented, the discussion and debate of those ideas, and the process of deciding which ones become reality.
According to Robert’s Rules, the steps in handling motions are:
- Making a motion
- Having someone second the motion
- Stating the motion
- Debating the motion
- Putting the motion to a vote
- Announcing the results of the vote
In the case of unanimous consent, these steps can be skipped. Motions can also be revisited, or renewed, but Robert’s Rules state that this shouldn’t be used as a stall tactic.
Without unanimous consent, a new motion or idea must be seconded. This means at least two people must find an idea relevant and worthy of committing meeting time to discussion. Imagine if just one person wanted to spend the meeting sharing their thoughts on the latest episode of a favorite cook-off TV show, and there was no way to stop them!
Voting = decision making.
When idea discussion or debate seems to be winding down, an attendee can question, or move to put the topic to a vote. If this is seconded, a vote is held. When it comes to voting, Robert’s Rules are:
- One question at a time
- One person, one vote
- Voting is limited to members in attendance
- Majority vote (more than half) makes a decision
Some situations require more than a majority vote. In this case a chair can require a majority of two-thirds vote, or the majority of the entire membership (regardless of attendance). In the case of an issue that needs to be voted on at a later meeting, previous notice should be given to protect the rights of members not in attendance.
Some organizations have also adopted a practice of coming to a consensus, discussing motions until a decision is reached that every meeting attendee finds acceptable. Though not strictly in line with Robert’s Rules, this method works well for many organizations.
Motions can be amended as needed, and the suggestion to do so must be seconded before bringing the amendment to a vote. Organizations can also refer a motion to a committee to research before voting. For example, imagine that a company meeting attendee suggests a community outreach program may improve hiring. A committee may be formed and asked to research whether that could work and what it would look like, and report their findings at a future meeting.
After voting and any other business is finished, attendees can move to end, or adjourn, the meeting. If this is seconded, the meeting is complete.
Officer responsibilities, nominations, and elections
Most meetings require a few critical attendees to be successful. A presiding officer, or chair, usually acts as meeting organizer and leader. Nominating and electing a chair is common for committees and boards. The process is simplified with Robert’s Rules of Order.
Additionally, another officer records meeting minutes and shares them with all invitees, regardless of attendance. Traditionally, this has been done by a secretary, but modern meeting software offers a multitude of options for recording meeting actions and sharing with all necessary parties.
Additional officers can be nominated and elected as needed to ensure success.
Robert’s Rules of Order Cheat Sheet
Whew! That’s a lot of information. For anyone unsure they can remember it all, don’t worry: we’ve got your back. Here is our cheat sheet with Five Steps to Meeting Success:
- Create an agenda centered around the meeting goal using order of business to prioritize: first minutes, then reports, followed by time-sensitive situations, unfinished business, general items, and new business.
- Achieve ideal attendance, or quorum, by inviting everyone relevant to the meeting goal; use an invitation method that every invitee can easily access and RSVP with, and share the agenda at the time of invitation.
- Discuss meeting items, making motions by suggesting ideas to address issues outlined in the agenda.
- Vote, or work towards a consensus as appropriate. Consider different voting options depending on the issue at hand and the need for transparency.
- End the meeting, or adjourn, after establishing final decisions and future topics for discussion. Consistently evaluate the existing or potential role of meeting officers.
Robert’s Rules of Order aren’t always the right choice.
Robert’s Rules obviously work great for legislative bodies, but they aren’t for everyone. Many nonprofits, start-ups, and community organizations find them restrictive, cumbersome, or difficult to enforce. If this is the case for your organization, take what works for you, and leave what doesn’t. The decision to come to a consensus instead of using majority vote is a great example of this.
Whether using Robert’s Rules or not, meeting notes software like Hugo can help. With dozens of customizable meeting templates and tools to record notes and share information, Hugo makes it even easier to run a meeting according to Robert's Rules of Order.