Let the members decide?

[I really do need to get back to my life, but one more comment before I let this go for a bit.]

This morning I heard that the AAUW CA Convention voted (narrowly) to propose to the AAUW Convention that the decision on the degree requirement be put off until after the implementation of one-member/one-vote.

Now while that may have some appeal, I think it is seriously flawed.

Remember the context of the vote — it is part of the major restructuring that will see AAUW transform from a 501(c)(4) to a 501(c)(3). In that change, we will be dropping some of the trappings of the organization that was founded in 1881 and become much more closely linked with the charitable arm that was founded in 1958.  At the core we are stating that we are to become a public charity.

This is an  important decision with complex ramifications. The decision was discussed at length leading up to the 2007 convention where the members voted unanimously to set this course for the organization.

AAUW’s tradition is that important decisions are made by the delegate body in a face-to-face biennial convention, a meeting with extensive opportunities for questions to be asked and answered. It will take some time before we set up systems of voter education for the many members who view AAUW as primarily a local organization.  We cannot risk derailing the new AAUW before it gets started by pulling out one piece of the change and acting as if it can be decided in isolation from the change to the organization’s purpose and the other related changes.

The delegates in St. Louis must take responsibility for a decision on this change.

The degree requirement and our purpose

I was one of the folks who set up the “AAUW: Breaking OUR Barrier” Facebook group to discuss a proposed change to the AAUW bylaws. This change would drop the historic  requirement that all members must have a degree. While a majority of the members at the 2005 national convention agreed with this change, fewer than 2/3 agreed, so the degree requirement was retained. In 2009 we’ll be voting on a complete revamp to the AAUW bylaws, including opening the membership to all who agree with our mission.

I just had an “aha” moment when I realized that this may be more about a completely different article in the bylaws, one that has had very little attention/discussion.

Let’s take a few quotes for background:

Current Bylaws

Article II. Section 1. Purpose. The purpose of the Association is the uniting of the graduates of different institutions for practical educational work, for the collection and publication of statistical and other information concerning education, and in general for the maintenance of high standards of education.

This wording is very close to the text of the 1899 Charter, though that used “alumnae” where we now use “graduates,” presumably to honor our relatively recent decision to admit men.

Proposed Bylaws

Article II. Section 1. Purpose. The purpose of AAUW is to advance equity for women and girls through advocacy, education, philanthropy, and research. AAUW is organized, and shall be operated, exclusively for any or all charitable, educational, scientific, or literary purposes that may qualify it as an organization described in section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986, as amended (the “Code”), and exempt it from federal income tax under section 501(a) of the Code.

Previous mission

AAUW promotes equity for all women and girls, lifelong education, and positive societal change.

Current mission (approved by the board in 2007)

AAUW advances equity for women and girls through advocacy, education, and research.

In all the verbiage surrounding the AAUW bylaws, this change in the Purpose to match the current mission has been glossed over. Hundreds (if not thousands) of words have been spent on structural issues and procedural details, but nowhere in the explanatory documents can I find a discussion of the change in the purpose.

The new mission was well accepted in 2007. Though in 1997 there had been a failed attempt to simplify and streamline the mission by a vote at the national convention, this fairly quick change by a vote of the board (not the members) did not rouse any serious opposition. Web sites changed, elevator speeches were revised (usually to be crisper and more to the point), dozens of presentations introduced the new mission to members across the country. The board had surveyed the members to find the key components of the AAUW “DNA” before proposing the new mission, and they did their job well, judged by the acceptance of the new mission.

However, a mission is not, in general, a “purpose” — an immutable description of why an organization exists. In our discussions of changing the mission in the past, there’s been an assumption that there is a core of “what AAUW really is” and the mission, while more than a marketing tag line,  is the set of words that instantiates that purpose for the present time.

That said, it’s pretty clear that the current mission and the one before don’t have a great deal to do with the “purpose” in the current bylaws. My sense is that though they can recite the mission and act to advance it, many members, at their core, understand AAUW as an organization that serves that 1899 purpose — uniting alumnae of various institutions. Perhaps this assumption was so ingrained that it was not clearly articulated in the discussions that led up to the 2007 change in the mission.

Why have those responsible for the new bylaws put the current mission into Article II? What has happened to the “uniting of graduates”?

I think we need a crisp answer to those questions, and I expect the answer will be “we change or we die.” At the 2007 convention, where we voted to lay the groundwork for the proposed bylaws, we were told in no uncertain terms that change is necessary — but not sufficient — for the continued life of the organization. We voted, unanimously, to change.

Why, though, did we change the “purpose?” I can’t say I’ve gone back through the documents of the strategic process, but my impression is that the whole strategic process was in the context of

“uniting alumnae” is no longer a viable purpose for a national organization

Those who want to join a group of college graduates, for whatever purpose, can find that group in their neighborhood and among their colleagues — it is no longer difficult to find other alumnae. Indeed the disconnect between even the “lifelong learning” mission and the current purpose argues that it’s been irrelevant for many years. It’s also accepted that those who  “join for the mission” are less likely to oppose the change to the degree requirement than those who “join for the people.”

We need a new purpose. We have a well accepted mission, and a decision was made to drop that in to Article II.

Once that’s done, the degree requirement no longer makes sense. Nothing in that mission requires that members supporting it have degrees.

So if you want to continue the degree requirement, how would you articulate a 21st century “purpose” for AAUW that includes that requirement?

I recognize that this change in purpose will seem unexpected to many who see AAUW as primarily a local organization —  friends and colleagues — doing good work and having fun, making connections to the community, continuing that “lifelong learning.”  It’s unexpected to those who haven’t dug down into the “why are we here” question. It’s the national board that’s had to grapple with that question — and after listening to thousands of comments from members across the country as well as the best legal and organizational development advice they could find,  they have approved the proposed bylaws. This is what they see as the best way forward to make AAUW a vibrant organization that will help advance equity for women and girls through its unique history and culture.

But we’re not there yet. Even if the proposed bylaws pass, we may face the “slow death” that was raised as a specter in at the 2007 convention in Phoenix. We will lose some members — perhaps even branches — who want to cling to the 1899 purpose. However, if we are to move forward into this new age, finding a way to energize our members, recruit new stakeholders and forge alliances with new partners, we must change.  We do have a chance at reversing the decades long decline to rise again as an organization that honors our incredible past as we invent our future — for all women and girls. Join me!

AAUW Webmanagers’ 10th annivesary gathering

The AAUW webmanagers’ listserve was established after the 1999 convention (where I did a workshop with the first AAUW webmanager — see June 1999 entry.)

It looks as if this group will get together in St. Louis for lunch, on Friday, June 26.

For details, twitter to “d nes49” or check the Facebook group for the convention. We’d hope to be in the official program, but one never knows…

[This conflicts with the legacy circle lunch and the Patsy Mink documentary — but hopefully, this will all be ok.]