May 272014

This is another post to point people at later. I’m sure I’ll be adding other things as I think of/come across them, so I’ve pre-emptively numbered this.

The so-called “Conferences” …

I went to Chester on 19 March 2014, on behalf of the president of one of my WIs, who couldn’t attend, to an NFWI (National Federation of Women’s Institutes) event. They put on this series of days across the country, about a dozen, that they called Information and Inspiration Days, and alternately, “Inspiring Women Conferences.” I have very limited experience with conferences, but the math conferences I’ve presented papers at were wonderful opportunities to connect and really communicate with others: to learn about things going on in the field, in the area, etc. They’d said the trustees would be at this event in Chester – those are the members who run the national level of the WI. I had these visions of us breaking into smallish groups, each with a trustee, and really discussing and hashing over issues that we face at each level of the organization, coming up with ideas, giving real feedback to national, and that sort of thing.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. They stood on a stage and read to us. The stop I went to was about halfway through their list – so they’d done this about half a dozen times already – and they were still at the stage of reading every word to us. They didn’t engage us at all, they spent the whole day hyping up the “Open Forum” at the end, which turned out to be a whopping TWENTY MINUTES, and they only spouted all the information that’s already been made available – I learned nothing new. THEY COULD HAVE EMAILED IT!!! Such a massive waste of everyone’s time and money – I was FIVE HOURS in the car and 11 hours gone from the house for this crock.

I don’t know why I dreamt that national would finally engage, interact, and listen to us members. This is one of my problems with the organization, and a huge factor for why I won’t do more than be a member: the higher the office, the bigger the blinders and lack of engagement with the members seems to be. Even some presidents suffer from the blinders: at lunch, one woman asked me which WI I was president of (the invitation had been issued for “the president or her representative”); when I replied that I wasn’t president, she hastily beat a retreat – so as to not be contaminated by my mere member cooties, it seemed.

The Resolution Process …

May is the resolution meeting, and we’re to discuss the national public affairs resolution (occasionally others get tacked on, too – last year, there were constitutional amendments to discuss). Here is the process:

  • Members are supposed to submit prospective resolutions almost a year in advance.
  • A few months after that, county federation representatives and national federation representatives meet to shortlist the proposed resolutions to usually about 8 or less to pass along to us mere members to vote on.
  • In December, we vote on the short list, generally choosing one (sometimes two) we’d like to see go forward. All the votes are tallied – each individual vote is added up across the entire NFWI.
  • Based on those results, in May, we’re given an even shorter list – one or two, depending on how the votes fell (a closer vote between the top two is likely to see two go forward). We then vote on each one, separately. If there’s more than one resolution proposed in May, it’s not an either-or. On each resolution, we individually vote either For, Against, Abstain, or to Let the Delegate Decide after she’s heard the arguments for and against at the national AGM. The majority vote in the WI decides the WI’s vote, which the link delegate1 casts at the national AGM.
  • There’s a big song and dance put on at this meeting of having the proposer say a few words, then a seconder, and then an expert speaks in support of the resolution, and after all these positive remarks we get one expert who speaks against the resolution, and then there are questions from the floor for the two experts, and then the chair asks for the vote.

The NFWI is keen to tell us that we’re not voting in December, that we’re selecting instead, and the voting happens in May; this was one of the points our chair was using up that 20 minutes of Q&A in Chester to make. Sounds like hogwash to me: it’s two rounds of voting, plain and simple. A primary and a runoff.

The resolutions which are passed form the basis of campaigns. As the largest voluntary organization for women in the country, the NFWI has some power, and certainly manages to get things done on a national level. The campaign work subsequent to our resolution about honeybees is credited by the Bee Minister (yes, there is one) as quite a substantial reason behind the money found for research into pollinators, including bees. Our Care Not Custody campaign has helped spawn pilots in 20 locations across the country to address the mental health issues of criminals, instead of simply locking them up and forgetting about them. And so on. There’s more here if you’re curious. So yes, lots of good work is done.

That said, in my four years so far, they’ve avoided anything controversial, and have worded the proposed resolutions so that any that make it to May are essentially guaranteed to pass. They hit a snag in 2011, when the wording of one was so bad that a member at the NFWI AGM moved to move on without voting on that matter, and got an overwhelming yes answer from the delegates. I noticed that by the time I was link delegate in 2013 (and I suspect before that), the rules had been changed in several places to keep that from ever happening again. Because, of course, the mere members mustn’t do anything but rubber stamp what national wants to do.

Oh, and as for the members supposed to be putting the resolutions forward? Technically, yes, that’s true, but I noticed that most of the ones we see in December in the last two years have been put forward by the chair of the Public Affairs Committee. Yes, she is a member, but that isn’t really the democratic, member-led process they harp on about, at that point. Part of the problem is that the process to put a resolution forward is massively time-intensive, which puts most people off. There’s no reason at all why it should be a process of anything more than writing out the proposed resolution itself in an email or on a postcard and sending it to national by a certain date. Anything beyond that is purposefully exclusionary. One of the things required is to produce explanatory guidance of the pros and cons of the proposed resolution: No. Our subscriptions (dues) pay a staff of 40, and the pros and cons never fill more than one (A4) page (and that only if they make it to May!) – they can produce that.

So yes, the resolution process is another thing I’m disillusioned with about NFWI. It isn’t truly member-led when the paperwork required puts people off; it isn’t truly democratic when you structure it this way. The first and last steps are merely representative democracy, with only the second step being actually democratic – at which point it hardly matters what we vote for. The song and dance you do at the AGM is an insult to any individual possessing a brain – the votes have all been cast, quit wasting time trying to persuade us one way or another. If you really want us to hear what your experts have to say, put it on YouTube before we vote in May. Quit calling December’s thing a selection as though that’s any different from a vote – you’re only trying to exert power because you can, rather than doing anything useful.

I know I’m not alone in my disillusionment of the resolution process – this year we had 77,071 members vote in December out of 212,000: about 36%. Fix it, NFWI; that’s what your power is for.

  1. The delegate represents a number of WIs, which are linked through her, so she is the link delegate. Four is the norm in Derbyshire at the moment, though last year some represented three and some five – it depends partly on geography. Other numbers have been experimented with in the past and likely will in the future. []

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