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How the Quaker principles can be used in board meetings

18 Mar 2019 In-depth

Shivaji Shiva considers how the Quaker Business Method could be applied as a tool for better charity board meetings.

Earlier this year, the Social Change Agency’s Losing Control conference was held at the Priory Rooms in Birmingham, a venue owned by Central England Quakers. Among other things, the conference explored ways in which charities might achieve genuinely collective decision-making. Several of those present commented on how appropriate it was to explore those issues in a Quaker meeting house. I was prompted to explore how Quakers make decisions, and what the rest of us can learn from a governance toolkit that has been in use for over 350 years.

The Quaker Business Method (QBM) is a way of conducting meetings used by the Religious Society of Friends to run meetings, large and small. The QBM is described in detail in Quaker Faith & Practice, the Society of Friends' book of discipline, which is a mine of hard-won wisdom on running meetings.

On a practical level, the QBM can be seen as a suite of tools to support decisionmaking, including:

  • Silence: A period of silence at the start and end of the meeting to help those involved “come with heart and mind prepared” for the work of the meeting, and leave prepared for what follows. Silent pauses between contributions and longer pauses where necessary can also encourage thoughtful decision-making and reduce the risk of conflict or decision-making based more in ego than organisational purpose.
  • A subtly different role for the clerk (chair): The clerk is the servant of the meeting. The role resembles that of a chairperson – including agenda preparation, minute drafting, and ensuring the efficient conduct of business – but greater emphasis is placed on the role of the clerk in discerning the sense of the meeting.
  • Contemporaneous minutes: The minutes are written and agreed as decisions are made. A substantial part of the meeting may be spent ensuring that those present can unite behind a minute that truly captures the sense of the meeting as a whole, even when some individuals disagree.

Quakers recognise that these and other aspects of the QBM can be time-consuming. Both Friends and attenders (those who attend a local meeting regularly but are not members of the Society of Friends) make fond jokes about the QBM and the time it can take to make decisions. But they will also point out the strengths of this careful process: once a decision is arrived at, it can be implemented quickly and with commitment.

Discernment: The process of finding the sense of the meeting is more than an exercise in compromise or consensus. Discernment is “a process of waiting and deep listening that filters out distractions and ‘noise’ to reach clarity”. This reaching for a purer decision may involve ongoing feedback to the clerk. The process is a collective one and individual Quakers will often reply to attempts by the clerk to formulate a minute with the noncommittal phrase “hope so”, allowing space for a more generally acceptable form of words to be found.

Arrangement of the room: Typically, seats face the clerk, people stand when speaking, and the clerk will “stand aside” – moving to a different position – when giving a personal view during the meeting.

Cultural expectations: All those at the meeting are expected to take personal responsibility for being prepared and to attend regularly. Each person is expected to speak only once to each agenda item, unless called again, and not to speak simply to rebut something said by someone else. This is a valuable tool in encouraging all involved to consider the purpose of every contribution they make – and to share responsibility for ensuring that the meeting reaches a decision it can unite behind.

Open-mindedness: To arrive with “hearts and minds prepared” for the meeting, participants are expected to make time to explore their own thoughts and feelings beforehand. They are also expected to be ready to entertain contrary views rather than pursuing a fixed agenda or position.

Preparatory meetings: Some Friends describe with wry amusement the tendency for meetings to proliferate – “committees to choose the members of the committee”. The preparation for a meeting addressing complex or difficult issues may involve one or more preparatory meetings and different types of meeting exist to help resolve conflict and prepare the way for more complex decisions. These include: clearness meetings, threshing meetings, and sharing meetings, as well as the more commonplace standing committees or working groups.

Any experienced charity trustee or chair is likely to be aware of at least some of these tools but may not have applied them all in a meaningful way. Exploring the Quaker Business Method with your board of trustees offers the chance to consider and apply these tools systematically with the benefit of the lessons learned by Quakers over many years. It also provides a fascinating glimpse into the culture and governance of the Society of Friends, a group which has made notable contributions to philanthropy and many social movements including the abolition of slavery, prison reform and the promotion of peace – and continues to do so today.

For those interested in learning more about the Quaker Business Method, a good starting point is The 'Q' bit – At the heart of a Quaker-led organisation from Quaker Social Action. This booklet includes background to the governance of Quaker organisations, an exploration of some of the values, ways and practices which underpin the Quaker business methods including its spiritual components, a look at changes in the wider charity sector, and a description of key Quaker business methods. Whatever your view of the spiritual elements of Quakerism, this exploration of the “inner-side of trusteeship” is a useful prompt to reflect on how effective decision-making in your organisation is – and what you can do to make it better.

If you prefer your governance prescriptions to be rooted in science, see Professor Peter Cheng's analysis of the Quaker Business Method using cognitive science (see box above). And if you are prompted to seek a greater understanding of the Quaker Business Method and the tools it includes, it would be wise to consider joining the Quakers & Business group to exchange knowledge and perhaps explore how you would embed all or some of the Quaker business methods mentioned above, within your own organisation.

Shivaji Shiva is charities partner at VWV and a trustee of the Cyclists’ Defence Fund


The Quaker Business Method: Is how it works why it works?

Professor Peter Cheng, a cognitive scientist at the University of Sussex, has considered how effective the Quaker Business Method (QBM) is as a way of making decisions, drawing on his long association with the Quakers. He has developed a theoretical framework including:

(1) QBM as a set of tools, including values

(2) theories and models from cognitive science that explain how humans think, and

(3) relational models to judge objectively the morality of different human interactions.

He considers, for example:

Memory: The role of silence and the clerk in helping attendees to recall all ideas raised in a meeting and not just those that came at the start and the end (the primacy effect and recency effect, respectively). The Quaker focus on open-mindedness and non-argumentative interaction may help prevent meetings from being dominated by one or two ideas.

Psychological biases: Several QBM tools can help to counter psychological biases. Firstly, a period of silence may help avoid the haste that distorts judgement. The clerk’s role is precisely to deliberately record and carefully weigh contributions, while the expectation that all participants should be open-minded may encourage conscious reflective thought. The idea that discernment is about seeking some form of truth may help people pause before grasping at the first feasible option that comes to mind.

Also, problem solving: Does silence provide an opportunity to consider alternative paths to solve a problem? Does the clerk’s role help the meeting to see and define the problem it needs to solve in the way envisaged by theories of problem solving?

Social dynamics: The influence of a majority view on decision-making is well-known. Professor Cheng explores whether the tools of QBM disrupt or reinforce such dynamics. The clerk clearly has a role in this but there are also factors such as:

  • The typical seating plan of a Quaker meeting, which emphasises the equality of those present by placing people in an arc roughly equidistant (if space allows) from the clerk, who is said to be the servant of the meeting, and
  • The injunction that participants should not make a contribution that merely repeats points already made, which if observed will tend to mask the presence of a majority.

Having examined the tools of QBM using various models, Prof Cheng suggests that:

  • The QBM toolkit may counter natural deficits in our ability to reason and solve problems
  • QBM tools may promote decision-making practices that are moral and the resulting decisions themselves may be moral, and
  • The QBM has vulnerabilities which could be avoided by adapting the method.

A paper giving a full description of Professor Cheng’s analysis is currently under review for publication with the Quaker Studies Journal.

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