What is Robert’s Rules of Order?

  • By: Adam Wire
  • November 28, 2022
Robert's Rules of Order
Reading Time: 7 minutes

What is the Robert's Rules of Order? Additionally, in a modern, digital, and virtual age, do Robert's Rules of Order hold up as well as a best practices guide for boards?

U.S. Army Brigadier Gen. Henry M. Robert first published Robert’s Rules of Order in 1876 to guide non-legislative bodies in how to conduct fair and orderly meetings. Now in its 12th edition, the book serves as the gold standard for parliamentary procedure and interactions, including board and committee meetings.

Times have changed, and today, organizations operate in a tech-savvy business environment. You might wonder: Does a set of rules and procedures written over 145 years ago apply in the current digital-first era?

The answer is a resounding yes. The format of meetings has changed dramatically in recent years, especially with widespread shifts to hybrid meetings since the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, Robert’s Rules of Order continue to provide valuable guidance for board and committee leaders.

In fact, in some cases, the rules are perhaps more important than ever. They provide a formal framework to ensure equitable meeting debates in virtual or hybrid formats where directors may otherwise get lost in a carousel of faces on a computer screen.

In this quick reference guide, we’ll provide information on some key elements of Robert’s Rules of Order relative to the structure of meetings and debate procedures. We also include practical tips for employing the rules to make meetings more efficient.

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What is Robert's Rules of Order?

Robert’s Rules of Order is the standard manual of codes and rules of ethics that govern discussions and decision-making in non-legislative organizations with boards of directors and committees. Simply referred to as Robert’s Rules, this framework helps directors have systematic, orderly, and goal-oriented meetings. 

Although an organization may amend or modify the rules, they do so with high adherence to the basic elements of the Robert’s Rules manual. Among all the forms of parliamentary procedures, Robert’s Rules is the most popular, adopted by about 80% of organizations

Robert's Rules of Order Basics

From motions and meetings to debates and amendments, learn the basics of Robert’s Rules of Order.

Types of Motions

A motion is when one director or committee member introduces a piece of business or proposes a decision or action. 

There are 6 types of motions:

  1. Main Motion: Introduces a new piece of business before the board.
  2. Secondary Motion: Allows the board to change or eliminate the main motion. Examples include postponing or amending the main motion.
  3. Privileged Motion: Refers to an urgent matter unrelated to pending business. Someone can “raise a question of privilege,” for example, to stop pending business and address an immediate need, such as excessive background noise.
  4. Incidental Motion: Relates to current business or procedures. Examples include “point of order” to alert the board to a perceived failure of the chair to maintain appropriate order for a meeting, and “suspension of the rules” to provide leniency from specific rules.
  5. Motion to Table: To table a motion or discussion is to temporarily defer the business at hand until a later time during the meeting.
  6. Motion to Postpone: This tactic is used to delay or stop a motion/vote. A member cannot bring it up again during the meeting, but they can reintroduce it at a later date. 

Motion Steps

A motion goes through a series of 6 steps:

  1. Motion: A member raises their hand to signal the chairperson before introducing  new business.
  2. Second: Another board director seconds the motion.
  3. Restate Motion: The chair restates the motion.
  4. Debate: Board members discuss the motion.
  5. Vote: The chair restates the motion, and first asks for affirmative votes, followed by the negative votes.
  6. Vote Announcement: The chair announces the results of the vote and any other guidelines.

What are the Stages of a Meeting? 

There are 6 basic stages of a meeting. They include:

  1. Call to Order: The chair makes the call to order to begin the meeting.
  2. Reading and Approval of Minutes: The minutes from the last meeting are read and confirmed before they become part of the official record. 
  3. Reports: Any reports are made by boards, committees, or officers.
  4. Unfinished Business: Pick back up any pending business from the previous meeting due to ongoing debate or lack of time.
  5. New Business: A member brings up new business for debate or action.
  6. Adjournment: The chair motions to bring the meeting to an end.

Meeting Tips

Because we operate in a world where time is of the essence, board meetings need to run as smoothly and effectively as possible. Apart from knowing how to prepare for a board meeting, use the following meeting tips:

  • Send minutes in advance to ensure an efficient meeting and prevent them from needing to be read during the meeting. 
  • Avoid discussing “old business” that has already been voted on to prevent extraneous, repetitive discussions from meeting to meeting.
  • Develop an agenda to ensure transparency and tailor the meeting structure to the unique needs of your organization. Be sure to include times for discussing specific board meeting agenda items, which can help keep the meeting moving and on schedule. Meeting agendas must be formally adopted by the group at the start of a meeting.
  • Take breaks, using “motions to recess,” to break up overly long meetings and help keep directors engaged and alert, especially online.
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What are the Rules of Debate?

The board chair designates the order of speakers, and directors cannot indicate their desire to speak until the previous speaker is finished. Individuals may speak twice for up to 10 minutes each on any given motion. Preference is given first to those who have not yet spoken. Any change to this requires a two-thirds vote to either further limit or extend debate.

If debate over a single motion is running long or otherwise creating tension, a “motion for a previous question” (once seconded and adopted by a two-thirds vote) allows you to close the debate and move the motion to an immediate vote.

Follow these tips:

  • Alternate speakers from each side when there are opposing positions.
  • Stay on topic. All debate must be relevant to the motion at hand.
  • Avoid criticizing individuals during debates. Focus instead on debating the merits of their arguments.
  • Direct comments to the board chair rather than directly at other directors or speakers.

What are the Steps to Make Amendments?

Amendments are intended to bolster agreement by changing the wording of a main motion. This can be done by inserting, striking out, or substituting words or paragraphs within the motion. Again, it’s important to be precise in stating exactly where the change should occur and what it would say.

Motions cannot be amended once they are approved, unless the board moves to amend a larger portion of the main motion that also includes the new amendment.

Follow these tips:

  • Avoid secondary amendments. While an amendment to a main motion may be amended once, the procedures for this are complex. You can circumvent the need for this by asking other board members to defeat a proposed amendment if you agree to submit a different amendment.
  • Use the “Settled Rule” to prevent anyone from submitting amendments that were previously defeated.

Improve Board Governance with OnBoard

The rise of cloud-based solutions and communication apps catalyzed a digital shift in board governance, which has helped boards streamline administrative work and access information easily for informed and quick decision-making.

At OnBoard, we understand board meetings should be informed, effective, and uncomplicated. That’s why we created a secure online solution to enhance board governance, improve decision-making, and provide easy access to key insights. 

OnBoard’s platform works the way you do, addressing real-world needs and alleviating complexities to ensure board meetings run smarter and achieve more for your organization. 

With the OnBoard platform, you get:

  • Mission-critical security and compliance
  • Actionable insights to coordinate board tasks and provide richer intelligence so you can act confidently
  • Simplified meeting administration with easy agenda creation and distribution of board materials
  • Intuitive technology that delivers the right information and the right time

While Robert’s Rules of Order continues to serve as the foremost guide to parliamentary procedure for boards nationwide, board portal features like minutes builder, engagement analytics, and automated meeting brief alerts enhance the meeting process.

Want to see what OnBoard can do for your board of directors? Download our free board meeting agenda template to get started.


Why These Rules Matter

As General Robert said, “Vigorous debate about the merits of a motion is central to the very idea of a deliberative assembly.”

Yet without established rules and procedures, such debate can quickly become chaotic and unruly. Nearly a century-and-a-half after it was penned, Robert’s Rules of Order continues to serve as the foremost guide to parliamentary procedure for boards nationwide.

The information and tips included here can help board leaders use the rules as they were intended—to drive meaningful, efficient, and productive meetings, regardless of whether they are in-person, virtual, or hybrid.

Ready to take your meeting agenda and minutes to the next level? Request a demo or a free trial of OnBoard, the board intelligence platform that empowers boards and committees to hold more effective, informed, and uncomplicated meetings. 

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About The Author

Adam Wire
Adam Wire
Adam Wire is a Content Marketing Manager at OnBoard who joined the company in 2021. A Ball State University graduate, Adam worked in various content marketing roles at Angi, USA Football, and Adult & Child Health following a 12-year career in newspapers. His favorite part of the job is problem-solving and helping teammates achieve their goals. He lives in Indianapolis with his wife and two dogs. He’s an avid sports fan and foodie who also enjoys lawn and yard work and running.