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A farm organization for the next century

By William Lee-Ashley

Rocky Mountain Farmers Union (RMFU) members see themselves as progressive forces in the rural Rocky Mountain West. Whether they are Republican or Democrat, members are united in the common belief that the full-fledged crisis in farm and ranch country demands innovative solutions and a strong voice. They look to each other, through RMFU, for answers—in the form of policy, business development, and effective programs—that are forward-looking and bold.

If RMFU is to continue to place itself on the cutting edge, the organization needs a structure that allows it to effectively fight on behalf of its members.

This is precisely the reason the board brought proposed changes regarding the role of RMFU’s president to the membership at last year’s convention. The members voted but the result was uncertain.

Despite the fact that the bylaws remain unaltered, the need to make the changes persists. Now is the time to seek input from any interested members about the proposed changes, publicize them and answer any questions about them before convention rolls around in November.

The major proposal that came before the membership last year was to separate the duties of the president from those of the executive director. Currently, RMFU’s president serves two roles: members elect him as the leader of the organization, but he also has to be prepared to be the manager of the office. He runs programs, manages employees, oversees RMFU’s for-profit subsidiary, and juggles all other tasks generally assigned to an executive director. We have been lucky: the membership has elected solid leaders who are also good managers. The presidents have had the vision to carry forward the farm organization’s agenda, as well as the financial, writing, and people skills to successfully manage the office.

Under the changes proposed last year and still being discussed, the president would still be elected by the membership every two years, and would chair of the board of directors. The president would serve on the board of directors and act as a spokesperson for the organization by speaking to the media, testifying occasionally at the Capitol and working very closely with the executive director.

The executive director, on the other hand, would be hired and overseen by the board of directors and would manage the office. He or she would be in very close contact with the president on broad policy decisions, but would have the authority to make program and staff decisions as necessary.

There are several advantages to changing the bylaws to allow the members to elect a president and the board to hire an executive director. One of the primary reasons is to increase the pool of members who would be interested in serving as president. Now, a member has to be willing to give up the farm or ranch, get a house in Denver and sit at a desk and run an office for two years. This naturally prevents qualified leaders, who want to continue farming or ranching, from stepping forward to lead the organization. It also prevents the organization from having a bona fide producer at the helm of the farm organization.

Creating an executive director position would allow RMFU to better use its limited resources. The board would be allowed to select an executive director from a wide pool of applicants with experience running a non-profit organization. They could select an individual whose skills matched the needs of the organization. For example, if strong financial expertise were necessary, they could hire accordingly. Or, if strong fund-raising and grant writing skills were needed, they could hire a director who had those particular qualifications. An executive director would also allow for greater continuity within the office: quality staff could be more easily brought on if they could be reasonably sure that the position was not going to turn over every two years.

The transition to an executive director is one that many organizations undergo. Steve Graham, executive director of the Community Resource Center, an organization that provides consulting services to dozens of non-profits, sees the creation of an executive director position as a key step for many non-profits. “We equate the creation of an executive director position with the professionalization of the organization,” said Graham. “It creates a better distinction between a volunteer board and a paid staff, and the result is a much more efficient organization.”

Even if other organizations have successfully undergone the transition, there are still fears about what it would mean at RMFU. The fears associated with making this organizational change should be seriously considered through this process. If done right, language can be crafted that assures member control and allows the organization to serve its members in innovative ways.

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