How Democratic Are Youth Organizations?

Patrick Boyle
March 1, 1998

Surely, everyone would love the new Girls Club of America logo.

That’s what the board of directors thought in January 1972, when it approved a new symbol for the organization. The staff even ordered new stationery in time for the April meeting of the member organizations, when everyone was expected to cheer.

The member organizations, however, made a different noise. They voted down the change. Eventually, the local organizations and the national office of the Girls Clubs (now Girls Inc.) agreed on a new logo but it took five years.

The board’s original unilateral move was hardly unusual. The national headquarters of nonprofit organizations routinely make decisions without consent, or even input, from member organizations who run local programs, reports a recent study on how such organizations are governed. The study found common confusion and concern over the lines of authority between national organizations and their affiliates.

How much does that matter? Some local members don’t care about their lack of input as long as the national organization appears to be running well. They’re too busy to fret over the absence of a membership voice at headquarters unless that absence harms programs, which it rarely does.

Indeed, the study found no immediate crisis although it warned that lack of membership involvement has led to crises in the past. It urged national nonprofit youth-serving agencies to make sure their governing process fits their needs.

The study, “Governance of National Federated Organizations,” was conducted by Candace Widmer and Susan Houchin for last December’s annual conference of the Association for Research on Nonprofit Organizations and Voluntary Action. Widmer is professor of human services and sociology at Elmira (N.Y.) College and Houchin is director of service centers for Indianapolis-based Girls Inc.

Their study focused on 50 nonprofit human services organizations that responded to a mail survey. The authors interviewed officials at 20 of those organizations. Most of the members are local agencies, such as Boys & Girls Clubs, while others are individuals, such as Boy Scout volunteers.

“There is clearly no ‘one size fits all’ governance structure,” the report says. “Governance structures ranged from those in which the board had complete power and the membership none, to organizations in which the membership could make policy on its own or even overrule the board.” At the American Red Cross, for instance, power rests with the board; at the YMCA, the membership elects the board, amends the bylaws, votes on policies, and may overrule the board — in theory least.

Regardless of what the bylaws say, however, at most organizations the board exercises the most power. “While the membership may appear to have significant powers,” the report says, “in practice the influence of the membership may be limited by infrequent opportunities to exercise power, lack of affiliate representation on the national board, little control over the agenda, lack of experience and cohesion among affiliate representatives and infrequent meetings of the membership.”

In some cases, the lack of membership involvement is “the way the [national] staff wants it,” Houchin said in an interview. “It makes their lives easier,” because they can run the organization more efficiently without a cacophony of opinions from the field.

Too Much Democracy?

After all, too much democracy can bog down an organization in endless debate. Sometimes, it takes a strong centralized leader to get things done and respond quickly to changing circumstances. When the American Cancer Society tried to increase member representation some years ago, the study says, it ended up with a 275-member board of directors. The society reorganized its unwieldy governing structure and now has 43 members on the board.

On the other hand, Widmer added in an interview, the staffs “have these members whose input they require. There is this balancing act that these organizations are in. It’s not that they’re doing anything wrong.”

In fact, Houchin says that sometimes “it’s the members’ fault” for not trying to exercise their voices. David Bahlmann, who has served as chief executive officer of Big Brothers/Big Sisters of America and Camp Fire Boys & Girls, said members often feel that they’re too busy to get involved in the national organization, figuring things will run fine without them. To take advantage of the power given in bylaws, he said, “you’ve got to get off your duff and do it.”

The risk of noninvolvement was illustrated with the United Way scandal in the early 1990s, the study notes. Under United Way President William Aramony, the board was packed with the heads of major for-profit corporations who delegated a great deal of responsibility to Aramony. There were no affiliate representatives on the board, giving the membership little chance to observe how things were running. Aramony resigned in 1992 amid concern over his personal use of United Way money. He and two United Way colleagues were later convicted of defrauding the organization of more than $600,000.
Although that’s an extreme example, “there were other organizations in our study that were headed in the direction of less and less involvement by the membership,” Houchin said. “Our caution is that it could go too far if you don’t have the checks and balances” provided by member participation.

Some organizations go so far as to include youths on the board of directors. Four of the 28 board members at Boys and Girls Clubs are youths from the programs, said CEO Steve Smith. The organization “covers all of their expenditures to attend national board meetings,” he said. The youth board members can be from 16 to 21 years old.

The United Way has significantly changed its governing structure to give members a stronger voice. Several other organizations are trying to get their members more involved in national policy-making, the report said. If members stay too far removed from the work of the national organization, Bahlmann warned, “after a period of time, something will bite you.”

Copies of “Governance of National Federated Organizations” are available for $20. Contact: Susan Houchin, Girls Inc., 441 W. Michigan St., Indianapolis, IN 46202-3233; (800) 374-4475 ext. 31; e-mail:


National Federated Organizations by Membership

Boyle, Patrick. "How Democratic Are Youth Organizations?"Youth Today, March/April 1998, p. 14.

©2000 Youth Today. Reprinted with permission from Youth Today. All rights reserved.





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