In my work as an attorney, Professional Registered Parliamentarian, and Certified Professional Parliamentarian-Teacher, I work with quite a few different parliamentary manuals. That’s because different organizations use different books as their procedural guide for membership and board meetings. I’m often asked about differences, so here’s a guide to the three parliamentary books most likely to be encountered. (If more information is needed, my Notes and Comments on Robert’s Rules, Fifth Edition goes into greater detail as well as compares specific practices between the books.)
A “parliamentary authority” is a book on meeting procedure an organization follows because of a state statute, governing documents language, or an adopted rule. Most often, a sentence in the bylaws (or “constitution”) provides that:
The rules contained in the current edition of [specific book title]shall govern the association in all cases to which they are applicable and in which they are not inconsistent with these bylaws and any special rules of order the Association may adopt.
That book then governs meeting procedures, except as overridden by state statute, the bylaws, or any special rules of order the organization adopts, such as board or convention rules. For organizations that have active boards, membership meetings, or conventions, it’s difficult to imagine functioning without an established parliamentary guide. That’s because running meetings without a parliamentary authority either leaves everything to the discretion of the chair or makes the parliamentary situation uncertain, leading to constant fights (or even lawsuits). As Thomas Jefferson said, “It is much more material that there should be a rule to go by, than what that rule is.”
When it comes to options for parliamentary manuals, there’s more than just one choice. Several “niche” parliamentary manuals are used for particular types of meetings, such as legislative bodies, specific medical professions, New England town meetings, or small government bodies in one state. Broadly speaking, however, in the world of nonprofit associations there are three main parliamentary manuals that fall into one of two parliamentary procedure camps: Robert’s Rules of Order or The Standard Code of Parliamentary Procedure (which includes both the original “Sturgis” and a newer AIP Standard Code).
Robert’s Rules of Order
Without question, Robert’s is the 800-pound gorilla of the parliamentary world. Among organizations that have a parliamentary authority, Robert’s is by far the best known and the most used (or claimed to be used). Robert’s Rules and parliamentary procedure are viewed as the same by most of the public. Some courts have held that Robert’s can be relied upon even without a required parliamentary book. The fact that Robert’s is the most popular and easiest-to-locate book on parliamentary procedure argues strongly in its favor as a parliamentary authority.
Robert’s strength is its thoroughness. At 714 pages there really is no scenario a large meeting or convention can encounter that isn’t covered. However, that thoroughness is also its weakness. There is much in Robert’s that won’t apply to the typical organization, and few that say they are familiar with Robert’s have ever read more than a portion of it.
(NOTE: I sometimes hear that Robert’s is “too formal” or doesn’t work for boards or committees. Not true! Robert’s, like other parliamentary authorities, distinguishes between larger member meetings or conventions and boards or committees. There are chapters on “informal procedures” for committees and smaller boards—see Board Procedures Versus a Membership Meeting or Convention.) My book Robert’s Rules of Order Fast Track has a focus on board procedure and was written to make Robert’s more accessible and less intimidating.
If of interest, here’s a parliamentary motions chart (“cheat sheet”) to the most frequently used motions in Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised (12th Edition).
The Standard Code of Parliamentary Procedure (“Sturgis”)
Alice Sturgis was a highly acknowledged parliamentarian in the mid-20th century and taught parliamentary procedure at the University of Berkely. She guided and many organizations, ranging from the American Medical Association, American Dental Association, unions, and even the American delegation to the first United Nations. At that time, Robert’s was NOT being regularly updated, and Sturgis felt the manual was outdated and too complex. As a result, she published The Standard Code of Parliamentary Procedure in 1950 and a Second Edition in 1966. The Standard Code (often called “Sturgis”) was shorter at about 280 pages, modernized terminology, and cited numerous court decisions about procedure as evidence of current meeting practices. Sturgis focuses more on principles than having a specific rule for everything.
Alice Sturgis died in 1974, but in 2001 the American Institute of Parliamentarians published a Fourth Revised Edition of The Standard Code of Parliamentary Procedure. The Standard Code is most often used by associations of physicians and dentists, who prefer some of its practices, particularly around the process of “reference committees.”
Sturgis has a special place in my heart, as it’s the parliamentary book given to me by my father (a dentist) when I expressed an interest in parliamentary procedure. It remains a well-written alternative or companion to Robert’s. However, with the death of its original author and disagreements among the authorship team, the 2001 Edition is likely to be the last of a book with this specific title.
If of interest, here’s a parliamentary motions chart (“cheat sheet”) to the most frequently used motions in The Standard Code of Parliamentary Procedure (“Sturgis”).
The AIP Standard Code of Parliamentary Procedure
If of interest, here’s a parliamentary motions chart (“cheat sheet”) to the most frequently used motions in the AIP Standard Code of Parliamentary Procedure.
At noted earlier, the 2001 Edition of “Sturgis” (The Standard Code of Parliamentary Procedure) is likely to be the last. Still, the book can be obtained online and many organizations that follow Sturgis have continued to use it. However, in 2012 the American Institute of Parliamentarians published the American Institute of Parliamentarians Standard Code of Parliamentary Procedure. While not a direct successor to Sturgis, the AIP Standard is based on the principles of simplification, modernization, and ease of comprehension enunciated by Alice Sturgis. It also uses modern terminology and eliminates several motions and devices found in Robert’s. The authorship team is currently working on a second edition of the AIP Standard Code, expected to be published in late 2023 or 2024. Based on experience, the new edition will have updates and perhaps even changes based on current trends and practices.
So, what’s the takeaway?
Most likely, the parliamentary authority your organization has is the one you will keep, based on statute or existing wording in the bylaws. Such language can be quite difficult to change, particularly after many years of use. Recognize, however, that there is no one-size-fits-all parliamentary manual. Different organizations have different needs, and your parliamentary authority should best fit your particular circumstances.
Jim Slaughter is an attorney, Certified Professional Parliamentarian-Teacher, Professional Registered Parliamentarian, and past President of both the College of Community Association Lawyers and the American College of Parliamentary Lawyers. He is author of four books on meeting procedure, including Robert’s Rules of Order Fast Track and Notes and Comments on Robert’s Rules, Fifth Edition.