If you think that referring a motion to a committee is a way to ensure that the motion never sees the light of day again, you might be right. Ever heard (or said), “That motion died in committee”? It happens.
But committees don’t have to be the place that motions go to die if you start following these steps anytime you propose a motion to refer.
Let’s say you’re part of a twenty-member board of directors considering whether to adopt a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) statement. Member A makes a main motion that includes a proposed statement. Member B doesn’t like the statement as worded by Member A but also isn’t sure exactly how to change it to his liking. He thinks that perhaps a committee should work on a revised statement by researching what other similar organizations have done and by talking with stakeholders, and then bring a recommendation to the board. In this scenario, the best step for Member B to take is to make a motion to refer the main motion to a committee. But what should his motion to refer look like?
Step 1: Specify the Name of the Committee
Before making his motion to refer, Member B should decide which committee is best suited to work on the main motion. It could be a committee that already exists—a membership committee or diversity committee, for example. Or it could be a special committee created for the specific purpose of drafting a DEI statement. Either way, his motion to refer should specify the committee that will tackle this job.
Option 1: Refer to an Existing Committee
If Member B wants to refer it to an existing committee, he should say, “I move to refer the main motion to the [name of existing committee].”
Option 2: Refer to a Special New Committee
If Member B wants to refer it to a special committee that doesn’t yet exist, he should specify the composition of the committee and how members of that committee will be chosen. He could say, for example, “I move to refer the main motion to a special committee consisting of three board members, one membership committee member, and four professional members appointed by the President.”
Step 2: Give the Committee Instructions
Next, Member B should make sure that the committee knows what to do. Should they research the DEI statements of other organizations? Should they talk with certain stakeholders? Should they simply report on what they learn? Or should they also come back to the board with a proposed statement?
Giving a committee instructions in the motion to refer might look like this: Member B could say, “I move to refer the main motion to the membership committee to research language that other organizations similar to ours are using in their DEI statements, to talk with an external diversity consultant, and to bring at least one recommended statement to the board.”
Step 3: Tell the Committee When To Report Back
Finally, Member B should suggest a reporting timeframe for the committee. This step may be the most important one for making sure that a main motion isn’t pushed to the back burner and forgotten. Giving the committee a reasonable deadline (1) helps the whole group know when to expect to hear back from the committee and (2) keeps the committee motivated to pursue the task it’s been charged with.
Here’s how I would add that timeline to the motion to refer: Member B could say, “I move to refer the main motion to the membership committee to research language that other organizations similar to ours are using in their DEI statements, to talk with an external diversity consultant, and to bring at least one recommended statement to the board no later than the February 2023 Board of Directors meeting.”
If you’re Member A, don’t take a motion to refer personally. Letting your main motion sit with a committee for a while doesn’t have to be a death knell for the idea you presented. That motion to refer might actually result in a more well-crafted, researched recommendation for the larger body to consider.
And if you’re Member B, use the steps above as a guide for making a helpful motion to refer to committee. Make sure it’s properly worded—with clear instructions and a timeline provided to a select identified committee.