Group Decision-Making Guide for Activists

There’s a difference between facilitation and decision-making.  Facilitators work within the boundaries of the decision-making structure that exists within a group, be it hierarchy, consensus or spokescouncil structures.   I find there’s limited content or workshops on decision-making, even though it’s such a crucial subject.  Decision-making is essentially about power within a group; who has it, who doesn’t.  Decision-making matters.

In order to provide insight into decision-making, I’ve created a handout that documents some of the decision making models typically used with non-profit and all-volunteer organizations.  I also cover strategies group use to diagnose and alter their group’s decision-making structure.  Please tell me what you think of the content.

Download the handout on group decision making.

I regularly host group decision making workshops through the Tools for Change program.  You can also contact me at jessicambell at gmail dot com if you want a workshop tailored to your group.  If any of you are interested in designing this handout for me then please send me an email.

Seeds of Change Consensus Decision-Making Handout

Seeds of Change has developed a neat consensus decision-making guide.  The practical guide covers the basics, including:

  • an overview of the consensus process
  • consensus in small and large groups
  • and trouble-shooting issues, such as dealing with difficult people.

The one small issue I have with the guide is it’s assumption that consensus is the best decision-making method for groups (I think different groups need to find the method that works for them, and some forms of consensus can be extremely difficult for large groups or groups dealing with a big influx of new people.). Still, that assumption doesn’t detract from the value of the information.

The Tyranny of Structurelessness

Freeman wrote “The Tyranny of Structurelessness” in response to her experience as an activist in the feminist movement in the 70s.

At that time, many radical feminist groups did away with formal governance structures, and moved to a fluid informal decision-making process that reflected their enthusiasm to build support networks composed of friends or “sisters”.   The rejection of formal structure was partly due to a conscious rejection to the patriarchal hierarchies many women had suffered through in other social movements.

In this seminal essay Freeman argues that the total abandonment of structure is not wise.  Her argument is that decisions and inequities still exist, despite the absence of formal structures, and it is far easier to examine, critique, and improve formal acknowledged governance structures than it is to reform unacknowledged ones.

In my experience, I have seen many new activists reject structure on the grounds that it is not in line with the “friendly tone” they want to set in the group.  Often the people who don’t want structure are the people who are friends with a lot of other people in the group, and therefore don’t always notice who is being excluded.  I do not see structure as bad in itself; rather I am concerned of undemocratic structures.  I also agree with Freeman that a lack of structure can be just as exclusionary as a hierarchy.

I believe we can and should find a middle ground and develop governance structures that are healthy, equitable, and democratic.  I am currently writing a guide for activists and advocacy groups on developing democratic governance structures.  There’s not a lot written on this topics, but some good resources that I have found include:

– Lakey et al’s book on Grassroots and Non-Profit Leadership,
– Gastil’s Democracy in Small Groups, and
– Dressler’s Consensus Through Conversation