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Society for the History of Natural History

Society for the History of Natural History SGM 2021

Society for the History of Natural History SGM 2021

Society for the History of Natural History

Special General Meeting 2021, 23 March 2021, 3.30pm (GMT)

A Memorandum from the President regarding proposed changes to the Byelaws

Eugenia imperatrix (Empress Hummingbird, John Gould and H.C. Richter, 1804/1881. Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington.

Dear Member,

I look forward to seeing you, albeit virtually, at a Special General Meeting on the 23 March, where we will consider a proposal to make changes to our Governing Document, our Byelaws. This memorandum gives details of the democratic process Council has undertaken over the past three years when considering our strategic options, and provides a rationale for the changes to the Byelaws being suggested.

In essence, we have reviewed all the Society’s activities, our membership profile and governance. We began with a wide-ranging discussion at Council in February 2018, following which a small working group developed a detailed document that addressed our mission, purpose and aims, assessed our strengths and weaknesses, explored key challenges and opportunities, and formulated a list of priorities for action. Further Council discussion in May 2018 led to the preparation of a Strategic Statement – a precis of the detailed document – which was agreed by Council in September 2018. This was made available to members on the Society’s website and featured in the Newsletter (NL 115, January 2019), with a call for comments from the membership.

From 2019 through 2020 Council members focussed on how best to deliver the strategy. Working Groups composed of Council members explored five key areas (Management; Links to, and partnership with, other organisations; Membership and Promotion; Awards and Grants; and International Representatives) highlighted in the strategy.  Practical outcomes from these discussions have included liaison with our International Representatives to establish an agreed set of Guidelines, and the development of detailed and precise Guidelines for all our awards and prizes which feature in the draft Byelaws (p.6).

In April 2020, Council were asked to consider nine key questions that had emerged from our debates. These questioned the purpose of the Society, especially on how we serve our members, and how we might develop a better sense of community. Practical issues such as the effectiveness and size of Council, the key skills that we needed on Council, how to achieve transparency and equality, succession planning, the relevance of our  current ‘Rules’, the ways in which we could support our International Representatives, collaboration and networking, our awards and grants, were discussed at length.  Following the April Council all members sent individual written responses to the nine questions to the President, who then developed a synopsis of the opinions embedded in them and created a set of strategic options for Council to vote on. These options were considered at Council on 22 September 2020 when several important decisions were made. Most significantly, Council decided that our Current ‘Rules’ were not fit for purpose, demanding that our Governing Document (Byelaws) should be revised to reflect the ways in which the Society now operates, and to implement several practical changes to make the Society more resilient, more active and serve the membership better.

A small Council working group revised our Byelaws, creating a draft which was sent to three former Presidents and several long-term members of the Society for comment. Their feedback led to significant improvements to a document which was presented to Council on 26 January 2021 where it was unanimously agreed. Council recommended that after further small changes the draft of the Byelaws be taken to a Special General Meeting to seek approval from the membership to ratify them.

I would like to explain the rationale behind the key changes that have been made to the Byelaws:

  • It includes the new mission statement agreed by Council in 2018.
  • A brief outline is given about how we achieve our mission.
  • We have stated our obligations as a charity.
  • Our discussions took place at a time when biodiversity loss, climate change and social injustice were increasingly discussed in the news, raising our own personal and collective concerns. These are not short-term concerns. Council felt strongly that we needed to state the Society’s beliefs and values; the study of the history of natural history has never been more important and we must embrace issues of diversity, equality, inclusivity and transparency in all our actions.
  • Arguably the greatest change relates to the size and nature of Council. It was felt important to lose the confusing distinction between ‘Officers’, ‘Councillors’ and ‘Co-opted members’ and to better recognise the important roles played by the members of Council who are currently co-opted. Dealing with these inequalities has the benefit not only of retaining the skills the Society needs, but also of reducing the size of Council from twenty to fourteen members, which is more in line with Charity Commission recommendations. We also need new skills, particularly in relation to the growing demands to have an attractive website and a strong presence on social media platforms to aid the retention of members and encourage new ones. You will see reference in the Draft Byelaws (9e) to a “Schedule of the Portfolios of Council” where the role of each Councillor is described. This schedule stands outside the Byelaws to give Council the flexibility to revise those roles, or create new ones, without having to seek the permission of the Charity Commission.
  • We have reviewed the process for the election of individuals to Council portfolios (section 10), respecting the need for transparency in this process.
  • The detailed revision of all procedures in relation to the Society’s Awards has been mentioned above. All the Society’s Awards are listed in a separate Schedule referenced in the Byelaws (12a). This Schedule “The Awards, Prizes and Grants of the Society for the History of Natural History” is also separate from the Byelaws, again allowing changes to be made by Council.
  • We have made minor changes to the details of the Annual General Meeting and Special General Meetings, notably in relation to the use of electronic communication, quorums and voting.
  • A section has been added relating to Dissolution of the Society, as required by the Charity Commission.
  • Although succession and the need for change in Council membership are not mentioned in the Byelaws, the practicalities of staggering appointments to specific roles, and ‘natural turnover’ will maintain the required balance of new ideas and experience.

We carried out a membership survey between August and November 2020 which yielded a 42% response, so my thanks to all of you who replied. The results will help to guide the Society further in developing its strategies for the future. A summary of the findings of the survey will be presented at the Special General Meeting.

Finally I would like to acknowledge the work of Council and all those long-time members, including former Presidents, who have helped to bring this Revision of the Byelaws to fruition.

Alongside this memorandum you will receive the Agenda and Draft Byelaws. We have also made available, for information only, the two Schedules (referred to above: Council portfolios (section 10); Awards, Prizes and Grants (section 12a).  We ask that you review the Byelaws document in advance, as we will vote on whether to accept it at the meeting. Members of Council will be present to answer any questions you may have. If the new Byelaws are adopted at the SGM, they will be deposited with the Charity Commission and then implemented at the Society’s AGM in June.

Professor Peter Davis
President, Society for the History of Natural History