Achieving change in membership organisations

Rosie Chapman, Senior Associate, outlines 8 key steps for achieving change in organisations. 

Membership is a feature that’s common to many charity and not-for-profit organisations. It’s often part of the governance model of organisations in the sports sector (such as the Football Association or Rugby Football Union), or campaigning charities. Members have the power to take certain fundamental decisions, such as making changes to the constitution, or altering the shape and nature of the board. In many cases, they also elect some or all of the board. Properly engaging with members is therefore critical if an organisation wants to achieve complex change.

Here are eight key steps to give organisational change the best chance of success:

1. Know your members

At a basic level, this is about keeping records up to date and regularly spring cleaning, something which is even more important now that General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is coming on stream in May. Some members regard themselves as donors, supporters or volunteers and may not realise they have constitutional rights, so routinely remind them of their membership status and what that means. Members will often have a strong affinity to the cause and have firmly held views – that’s why they’re members after all – and it’s another reason they can’t be taken for granted.

2. Don’t underestimate how long the process will take

Properly engaging with members means planning well in advance as it can take a year or more to make changes, especially if there is a sizeable membership and different types of members. Identifying key milestones and deadlines can help, for example links to other events such as an annual conference, or deadlines to meet the notice period for calling a general meeting.

3. Delegate

Hand-over items to a task and finish group, including some board champions, to oversee the development of the proposed changes and how these will be communicated. Report progress to the board.

4. Take members on the journey

Explain what you want to do and why. Explain why it will benefit the charity – it may be to access new opportunities, to reflect good practice, to improve accountability, or to streamline the charity’s governance. Work hard to ensure people understand what the proposed changes aim to achieve.

5. Consult and listen

Present options, if possible, or put together a compelling case for why only one approach is preferred. Consulting on a range of options can make it easier to achieve members’ ‘buy-in’ and feeling that they are contributing to the answer, but it may also mean a second round of  brief consultation on those final proposals. Consultation could include a combination of regional events; issuing a consultation or discussion paper and carrying out a members’ survey.

Significant changes (special resolutions) to an organisation’s constitution require a 75% majority
vote by members to go through, so it clearly helps if members  to go through, so it clearly helps if members genuinely feel they have contributed to the development of the final resolutions the general meeting is asked to approve.

6. Take items in bite-sized chunks

Some proposed changes may be uncontroversial, for example changes that will enable virtual or electronic board meetings.  It may make sense to present administrative and tidying up clauses to one general meeting, so the benefits can be realised immediately, while taking longer to consult on more substantive changes.

7. Make the most of  electronic proxy voting

Don’t rely on members turning up at the general meeting to get changes agreed. Although
electronic, as opposed to paper proxy voting, can feel like an additional expense it enables an
organisation to reach out to ‘everyday’ members who may not feel the need to attend a general
meeting or to fill in a paper form but will engage online. Put bluntly, this can also help ensure that all voices are heard, and that no cliques dominate.

8. Engage lawyers early

Do not under-estimate how fiddly drafting changes to constitutions can be, it needs people with a very keen eye for technical detail. Even organisations with access to in-house governance specialists will find it helpful to get external legal advice. At the very least, lawyers can carry out a final review of the draft resolutions and proposed changes to the constitution.


To discuss the issues raised in this article, contact

This article also appears in CT Brief, Issue 34

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