Member-Driven Decision Making

by Gwen Schmidt
Manager, Branches, Saskatoon Public Library

How many librarians does it take to change a lightbulb? If you can believe it, there are at least four different answers to this joke. My favourite is “Only one. But first you have to have a committee meeting.”

I have just finished a two-year term as the President of the Saskatchewan Library Association (SLA), following a period of previous involvement on the Board. It has been a fascinating time of change in our organization’s history, with a reshaping of our direction, our governance, and our style of decision making. I was glad to be a part of it.

One of the most interesting things about this time of change was the renewed SLA commitment to a member-driven philosophy. In 2010, the SLA membership determined that our Board structure needed an overhaul, and a Board Governance Task Force was struck. The Task Force took a look at our history, our values, our goals, and the challenges ahead, and set us on a new path with a new vision – central to which was the idea that our members would lead us.

We were always trying to be member-driven, but this renewed commitment to that idea came at a time when cheap/free consultative software tools exist in abundance, and when social media has given individuals the expectation that they can have their say easily. It was easier than ever before to make ‘member-driven decision making’ a reality.

My presidency fell during a time when strategic planning needed to be done. Instead of just doing it at the Board level, we did a broad survey of the members to find out what they think SLA should be doing, what they need from their library association, and what they think we do well. Once we had that data, we also took the opportunity at the annual conference to have conversations with people in person about it. We took broad themes out of the survey data, and had an in-person membership consultation where people could expand on those themes. All of that consultation helped us to build a robust strategic plan that is taking us forward.

During the same time, provincial and territorial and national library associations across Canada were considering the building of a new national federation together, which ultimately became the Canadian Federation of Library Associations (CFLA). SLA was invited to participate. Our member-driven philosophy set a road-map for us: before committing to participation, we took the question to our members. Did they want us to go forward as part of that federation? If yes, within what parameters? Our members gave us a resounding mandate, and endorsed a set of parameters going forward. Consultation with them throughout the process of building the CFLA identified a problem to be solved with a shared Saskatchewan-Manitoba CFLA Prairie Provinces Representative position. Knowing what our members wanted allowed us to set up a Saskatchewan-Manitoba working group, to determine the structure of the Prairie Provinces rep, to ensure strong communication and representation.

In associations, ‘member-driven decision-making’ sounds a little – or a lot – like evidence-based decision making. Instead of doing what we think they want us to do, we ask them what they want us to do and then do that. Those collaborative conversations take time, but ultimately build trust and energy, and give better results in the end.

How many member perspectives does it take to make an association truly shine? A heckuvalotta them. But that makes the future bright.

This article gives the views of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of the Centre for Evidence Based Library and Information Practice or the University Library, University of Saskatchewan.