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Toastmasters: Parliamentary Procedure in the 21st Century

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"The object of Robert's Rules of Order is to assist an assembly to accomplish the work for which it was designed, in the best possible manner."
Henry M. Robert
Robert’s Rules of Order preface, 1876

Elsewhere in this issue, Barbara K. Adamski's article "Robert Rules" profiles Henry Martyn Robert, author of Robert's Rules of Order. Let me get this straight: we're still interested in the writer of a 146-year-old book on meeting rules? What possible relevance can Robert's Rules of Order hold for us in the 21st century?

Actually, meeting procedures are more important than ever. After all, there are more people, more groups, and more meetings. Contrary to common perception, parliamentary procedure is not limited to Toastmasters meetings and student government associations. Just think of all the contexts in which meeting procedures are essential:

  • Board meetings
  • Membership meetings of for-profit corporations and nonprofit associations
  • Governmental meetings-school boards, city councils, and county commissions
  • Legislative bodies
  • Churches and synagogues
  • Community associations, including homeowner, condominium, and townhouse associations
  • Civic and volunteer clubs, such as Rotary, Civitans, Lions, and PTA's

Furthermore, courts have held that all organizations, including business, professional, educational, and governmental, are subject to the principles and rules of common parliamentary law. In other words, all of these organizations, including the estimated 2 million associations in the United States, must observe proper rules when meeting to transact business.

Most associations also adopt language in their bylaws stating that they will follow a particular parliamentary procedure book, such as Robert's Rules of Order. Organization members who act contrary to the rules they have themselves adopted may be liable for their actions. As a result, ignoring or incorrectly applying parliamentary procedure can lead to embarrassment and even lawsuits.

The benefits of a well-run meeting extend beyond questions of liability. Proper procedure can help turn long, confrontational meetings into short, painless ones. While a lengthy and badly run meeting can cast a pall on all other accomplishments during the year; a successful and well-run meeting will please and invigorate members. Also, members familiar with the rules have a greater advantage towards accomplishing their goals at meetings and often move quickly into leadership positions. As a result, learning the essentials of parliamentary procedure is worth the effort.

What Is Parliamentary Procedure?

Most people know little about parliamentary procedure; indeed, there's even great confusion as to just what "parliamentary procedure" is. In short, parliamentary procedure is the means by which organizations make decisions. That is, parliamentary procedure is all of the laws and rules of organizations that govern the transaction of business.  Contrary to common belief, parliamentary procedure is not synonymous with the book Robert's Rules of Order. Instead, Robert's, which appeared in 1876, is the first edition in a series of books bearing the phrase "Robert's Rules of Order" in the title. The twelth and current version--Robert's Rules of Order Newly Revised (12th Edition) (or "RONR")--is without question the 800-pound gorilla of the parliamentary world.  RONR is used by approximately 85% of all organizations in the United States that use a parliamentary authority.

However, RONR is not the only parliamentary game in town. Another well-known parliamentary procedure book is The Standard Code of Parliamentary Procedure (4th Edition)(or "Sturgis"), used by many associations of physicians and dentists. For those new to parliamentary procedure, Sturgis is an easier introduction to parliamentary procedure than RONR. Other well-known manuals of parliamentary procedure include Demeter's Manual of Parliamentary Law and Procedure, Cannon's Concise Guide to Rules of Order (great for practicing parliamentarians), Mason's Manual of Legislative Procedure (used by many legislatures), and Bourinot's Rules of Order (used in Canada).  While many other procedural books are available, the fact that RONR is the most used and the easiest to locate argues in its favor as a parliamentary authority.

While you may not wish to read it from cover-to-cover, RONR is an excellent resource for any organization. The book has sections on effective presiding, drafting good minutes, the duties of officers, running elections, writing and amending bylaws, holding board and committee meetings, and handling troublesome members. RONR is fairly easy to find-just buy the right book. As noted above, there are numerous RONR "clones" and earlier editions that are easy to get by mistake. RONR is available in hardback and soft cover and can be identified by "New Revised 12th Edition" and its number of pages (714).

As you begin your parliamentary journey, don't overlook "Parliamentary Procedure in Action" from Toastmasters International. This introduction to procedure is designed for club meetings and introduces Toastmasters to the basic skills for leading and participating in parliamentary discussions. The program includes a script and overhead transparencies for five 15-minute sessions on parliamentary procedure.

What Procedures Should Be Followed?

Most organizations formally adopt written rules of parliamentary procedure. The usual method by which an organization provides itself with suitable rules of order is to adopt a parliamentary authority, such as RONR. A parliamentary authority can be adopted by a bylaws provision that the current edition of a specified manual of parliamentary law shall be the parliamentary authority. The procedural rules in that book then govern in all cases in which the rules are not inconsistent with higher authority, such as federal or state law or articles of incorporation. This parliamentary authority can also be supplemented with specific rules to cover specific situations.

In parliamentary procedure, one size does not fit all. For example, board meetings and membership meetings should be conducted differently.  Large annual meetings must be fairly formal.  Informal discussion of matters is impractical due to the number of members present. Limits on debate must be observed to keep the meeting on schedule. Formal votes help avoid legal challenges.  In contrast, smaller boards and committees can be less formal. RONR notes that formality can hinder business in a meeting of fewer than a dozen.  As a result, in smaller boards RONR recommends that:

  • Members are not required to obtain the floor and can make motions or speak while seated.
  • Motions need not be seconded.
  • There is no limit to the number of times a member can speak to a question
  • Motions to close or limit debate are generally not used.

The chair usually can make motions and vote on all questions.

However, some smaller boards dislike the informality suggested by RONR and follow a more formal procedure at all meetings. Even informal boards should be more formal on matters of sufficient importance or controversy.

To avoid confusion as to what procedures to follow, some boards adopt procedural rules to govern board meetings. At a minimum, a board should adopt a rule that a particular book shall serve as the parliamentary authority if no such provision exists in other governing documents.


For anyone who wishes to be active in a club, association, or other group, learning the basics of parliamentary procedure is both desirable and achievable. A solid foundation of procedural knowledge can enhance credibility, result in better meetings, and make the difference between legitimate actions and illegal ones.

Jim Slaughter is an attorney, Certified Professional Parliamentarian, Professional Registered Parliamentarian, and past President of the American College of Parliamentary Lawyers. He is author of four books on meeting procedure, including Robert's Rules of Order Fast Track and Notes and Comments on Robert’s Rules, Fifth Edition. Jim is a partner in Law Firm Carolinas. For more information, visit

Updated from "Parliamentary Procedure in 2005" in The Toastmaster Magazine.

Charts and articles are intended to provide general information on parliamentary procedure and are not legal advice or a legal opinion.