Proposal to amend petition signatures

We are proud that NASW is one of only two of our peer organizations that has a democratic process for members to amend the organization’s constitution and bylaws by submitting a petition to trigger a membership vote on constitutional language. NASW’s current petition threshold, however, reflects a time when the organization was much smaller.

The Board and the Governance Committee propose an amendment to the NASW constitution and bylaws that continues to allow for member-driven amendments while linking the petition threshold to the current membership size at that time.

Please read on for details. Members will have the opportunity to vote on this issue at our annual meeting on October 13. Members unable to attend will be able to issues proxies online.

Changing the constitution and bylaws is the last stop on the road to change, and not without expense. When an amendment is triggered, the subsequent vote can cost $1,000-$2,500, in addition to additional staff and volunteer hours.

Short of a constitutional amendment proposal and vote, other mechanisms allow members to suggest changes in our organization and its governance, not the least of which is getting involved by volunteering on committees or running for the board. In addition, in 2016, the NASW Board created a Governance Committee to evaluate our constitution and bylaws. Members are encouraged to work with this committee to make changes in a deliberative, collaborative way. Members who see places where they wish to create change also can talk with the Governance Committee (governance@nasw.org), current board members, participate in elections, run for the board, volunteer, join a committee or even start a committee.

We remain committed to representing and serving our membership through best practices of nonprofit governance.

Summary This proposal would change the signature threshold needed for petitions to trigger a vote by membership on amendments to the NASW constitution and bylaws (ARTICLE IX, Section 1).

The NASW Board moves to amend that NASW change the petition threshold from 20 signatures to 5 percent of members, based on the total number of members on the March 1 preceding the date of submission. The Board also moves that proposed amendments must be submitted for circulation among the membership at least 90 days before the next regular meeting.

(To see the current bylaws in full, visit www.nasw.org/constitution-and-bylaws-national-association-science-writer...)

Current language

ARTICLE IX. Section 1. AMENDMENTS. An amendment to this constitution and bylaws may be proposed by the vote of three-fourths of the members present at a regular meeting, by vote of the Board, or by petition to the president of no fewer than 20 members. The proposed amendment shall be circulated to the membership and put to a vote at a meeting, and shall be adopted if approved by vote of a majority of the members voting at such meeting.

Proposed language

ARTICLE IX. Section 1. AMENDMENTS. a) An amendment to this constitution and bylaws may be proposed by the vote of three-fourths of the members present at a regular meeting or by vote of the Board. The proposed amendment shall be circulated to the membership and put to a vote at the next annual meeting of members (or the next meeting of members other than the annual meeting, if the Board so determines), and shall be adopted if approved by vote of a majority of the members voting at such meeting. (b) An amendment to this constitution and bylaws may be proposed by petition to the president of no less than 5 percent of members, based on the total number of members on the last March 1 preceding the date such petition is submitted to the president. The proposed amendment, if submitted to the president at least 90 days in advance, shall be circulated to the membership and put to a vote at the next annual meeting of members (or the next meeting of members other than the annual meeting, if the Board so determines), and shall be adopted if approved by vote of a majority of the members voting at such meeting.

Justification

In the past, NASW counsel has noted that the threshold was low for an organization of our size. The current petition threshold of 20 signatures represents less than 1 percent of the current membership.

The Governance Committee took up the issue in May 2018. The committee spent two months conducting research, drafting a policy statement and discussing the policy with the Board. The research includes a review of 15 peer organizations, books on corporate governance, books on nonprofit governance and U.S. Congressional procedure.

Most of our peer organizations do not have a process by which members can call for an amendment to their charters/constitution/organizing documents. Only one peer organization -- the Association of Health Care Journalists -- accepts amendment proposals from its members (put forward by at least 25 members or 25 percent of the members, whichever is less). AHCJ has a membership about 1,500 (compared with NASW’s 2,270 members and 294 students). The U.S. Congress requires the support of anywhere from 5 to 15 percent of its members to bring forward a proposed constitutional amendment. There are no examples from the reviewed literature on nonprofit or corporate governance.

Within NASW’s constitution and bylaws, a percentage of members can compel action when the normal democratic means have failed, by calling a special meeting of the membership or by forming a quorum at a meeting. In both cases, this threshold is 10 percent.

The Governance Committee and Board posit that the threshold for proposing an amendment should be lower than compelling a meeting, as an excessively high threshold can stifle stifle members' options for last recourse. Hence the 5 percent proposal.

By increasing the threshold for a vote to a level commensurate with or lower than peer organizations, NASW will retain this valuable tool for members to directly influence governance. NASW should retain this tool as a check by the membership on the board/staff/committees in general, so the threshold should not be so high as to make this tool essentially unusable.

August 22, 2018

Comments

Having successfully petitioned for an amendment to the NASW constitution (to add phrases that would allow NASW to join the Authors Coalition), I very much appreciated the 20-signature requirement.  The idea that an organization would send NASW money seemed strange or even illegitimate to many people, and it often took a while to explain it to them.  I was able, however, to discuss it with people at DCSWA meetings and on the listserv and persuade enough of them to sign to bring it to a vote, which passed it overwhelmingly.  As a busy freelance, to whom time is money, however, there was a limit to how  much time I could spend on this untried idea.  Convincing 20 people was doable.   Having to convince an additional 115, to meet the requirement of 5% of 2,270 members, might not have been.  At the very least, it would have required a much larger commitment of time and energy.  So some good, though seemingly off-the-wall, ideas might perish because of this.

So I believe that the signature threshold should stay where it is, attainable for someone without any organizational backing or large resources.  I don't believe that NASW members have proposed large numbers of frivolous amendments under the current system, and I do believe that the appearance (and reality) of democratic access is important, especially in an organization like ours that has a significant segment of members who feel they are treated as not quite first class citizens.  As to cost, I think that thanks in part to my 20-signature amendment, NASW can afford to spend some money now and then if that's what it takes to keep the organization as democratic as possible.

I think an important piece of information regarding this amendment is the frequency with which petitions are submitted.

If we are receiving multiple petitions each year, I would think it may be necessary to determine whether the petitions are frivolous or on-point.  If the petitions are frivolous, then this amendment is clearly warranted. If the petitions are on-point and occuring that frequently, we may want to take a look at our constitution and by-laws to determine whether a significant restructuring is warranted.

If we are receiving infrequent petitions, then I think the current procedure is working as it should and there is no need for a change.

Changing the petition threshold to 5 percent is a good idea, and it will not make NASW less democratic. Five percent is still a very low threshold. Finding that much support will not be an undue burden.

The recent reintroduction of the officer-eligibility petition that was defeated two years ago illustrates the problem of keeping the petition threshold artificially low.

Changing the bylaws is a serious matter. The vote two years ago was important, and I recall a heartfelt yet civil discussion among members who advocated on each side. I can only speak for myself, but the decision wasn't easy. I spent a fair amount of time reading the materials from both sides, often more than once. It makes NO sense to go through that again.

Raising the petition threshold to 5 percent will not prevent this issue -- or other contentious issues -- from arising in the future. But it might well save time and energy for each of us by preventing the needless rehashing, year after year, of issue(s) that have already been democratically decided. 

dkeller's picture

Jade makes a good point about rehashing proposed amendments that have already recently been defeated. One solution is to raise the proportion of member signatories to a pettiton needed to put forth a proposed amendment. Another solution to consider is to keep the present level of 20 signatories but to prohibit consideration of a proposed amendment that is substatially similar to one that has recently been defeated, eg, within the past 5 or even 8 years. One complicating factor would be who would determine whether a new proposal is substantially similar enough to the defeated proposal as to disqualify the new one from consideration. Possibly the Board would have to make that decision. By keeping the 20 signatory threshold but prohibiting reconsideration of a recently defeated amendment, the bar would be kept low enough that reasonable amendments could easily be put forward while at the same time eliminating the likelihood of frivolously regrinding an ax and beating a dead horse with it. (How's that for a mixed metaphor?) 

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