OWA Structure and Behavior

Wendy Bertrand - Oct 26, 2009 11:22AM

Organizational Structure and Behavior

Some members might feel relieved that the bylaws have been overhauled, but the consequences for OWA are major.

I appreciate Mui posting her comments at owa-usa.org, because I live part time in the northern most part of the state and did not attend the OWA October 20, 2009. Sharing concerns is healthy for the individual and for the group. It helps one to understand, to feel included, and to participate. I hope you will join the discussion.

She brings up points worth talking about and adding to:

One is that OWA used feminist principles of inclusiveness when we (and others) worked on the original bylaws. This was new, and not practiced in our field, and as Mui stated, it required the participation of most of the members.

Two is that OWA uses the words “horizontal structure” to define our shape because at the beginning the members who took on the big tasks (Membership, Programs, Newsletter, Education and Money) remained on the same decision-making level—there was only one level — but we referred to these members collectively as the “Steering Committee.” We made it clear that we expected everyone to be a “Steering Committee” member when they had the time. We wanted broad participation and we wanted to avoid burnout.

Three is that the OWA was horizontal for the entire organization; it avoided authority and encouraged responsibility. At that time, I wasn’t thinking of it as a safe guard against abuse of power or dominance. But I think we have learned over the years and by this recent change in style that we should have, at some point in the organization’s history, addressed this issue of safeguards. We now, more than ever, need safe guards in our bylaws, for example, audits, oversight, and term limits (Only two years or only four years etc.) to encourage full participation of our members and fresh blood.

As to officers, Mui suggests we don’t use the terms. I don’t know all that was said at the meeting but I don’t think everyone is on the same page. These bylaws set up officers and a board of directors and they were voted in by a quorum of the members on October 20, 2009. People announced themselves as Mui Ho, Secretary and Judy Rowe, Treasurer, not mentioned but already decided was Janet Crane, President. This is all new. Why give names to those positions if no one is going to follow them. This is all too confusing. Trust is not built on saying one thing and doing another. Members need to know how the organization really works. In court, I bet the bylaws hold up. But who wants to go to court. Why not transparency and integrity?

Certainly, OWA has survived, because of the times, and the great people as much as the organization’s design. But the reduced number of business meetings has taken its toll, making it very difficult for members to stay connected.

Steering Committee titles have changed over the years, in parallel with an increase in decision-making in what Mui calls “oversight.” And, even our egalitarian and flexible structure has developed weaknesses. Yes, we have survived and many of the members have been long time members and have been on the Steering Committee themselves. But all of a sudden, the organization is acting exactly like what we were trying to get away from and it is alarming to those of us who experienced true collaboration.

Things are said in the OWA newsletter and then not respected. For example nominations from the floor was announced and two people wanted to be nominated and were not allowed to be. And there is no provision for nominations from the floor in the new bylaws and there could be. Now in the bylaws, the president appoints a nominating committee.

Another sign of authority misused is that the new officers had been selected before the vote even took place, while the new bylaws say the board of directors decides on the officers. So, we have three layers in our vertical structure, with the members being the weakest (because our rights to decide and to be heard have been stripped in action and in the bylaws). We are no longer a “membership” nonprofit corporation we are a “public benefit” nonprofit corporation. In the beginning, each member was valued, encouraged, and expected to participate, shoulder to shoulder—a big change for long time members. Maybe this comes because now the health plan members are in the majority (53% or 73 out of 138) and they don’t need the same structure we have used for 36 years.

I will try to observe with an open mind but loosing ones democratic rights in an organization that was dear to my heart is hard to swallow.

What do you think about all this? The Forum at www.owa-usa.org is for everyone to use.

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