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Paulette Vinette, CAE

About Paulette

When to Form an Umbrella Organization

An umbrella organization in the not-for-profit sector is an entity that serves the common, shared needs of its member organizations. The purpose of an umbrella organization is typically to coordinate positions on issues and to organize activities. Often it is also to pool resources for the shared good and speak with one voice on matters related to its core purpose.

Examples of umbrella organizations include the Canadian Network for Mood and Anxiety Treatments, the Canadian Network for Asthma Care or the Canadian Hockey League. In each case, organizations group together to form an umbrella organization that can represent the shared interests of the members of the group and speak as one voice.

An umbrella organization can be an organization which is a central and coordinating body representing a number of smaller, separate bodies.

Benefits of umbrella organizations vary but often they orchestrate the pooling of resources (talent, materials, information etc.) which allows for better economies of scale. They promote a spirit of community and can create one united, significant voice on an issue given the large number of people the collective represents. That is, when things are going well.

The Consensus Challenge

The challenge many umbrella groups have to overcome is how to move forward when not all members agree on a proposed position or activity. In a traditional not-for-profit organization, the by-laws define how many votes are required for a decision to stand. Often it is 50 per cent plus one. In an umbrella organization, 48% against is a very large number and it would be ill-advised to proceed when so many are not in support. Umbrella organizations need to work by majority consensus and most have very tight guidelines defining the circumstances under which a consensus can be declared. It is usually not just a case of total numbers; factors such as “serving the umbrella organization’s core purpose” and meeting other adopted criteria must be served.

Like other not-for-profit organizations, the leadership of an umbrella group should take off their self-interest hats and put on the umbrella organization’s helmet – decisions must be made in the best interest of the combined collective. Many umbrella organizations hire a strong paid leader to be their spokesperson rather than relying on an elected volunteer. This helps to ensure that the spokesperson will speak for the collective and not for a particular member.

Like other not-for-profit organizations, umbrella organizations are well served by regular evaluation; getting the members’ feedback on how effective the collective is and measuring performance and results are very important leadership responsibilities.

Permanent Body or Task Force?

So if you are considering setting up an umbrella organization, before you do ask yourself “Could our objectives be met with a less formal “Task Force” that has a one-purpose mandate and a sunset provision for when the work is completed?” Setting up an umbrella organization is a timely endeavour; you need to establish rules & regulations (by-laws), define your purpose (vision/mission statements) and document your objects (your strategic goals/objectives). You need to document a set of filters through which decisions to proceed must be run through. You also need to establish a funding mechanism and resources to manage the affairs of your collective and you should invest in a long-term strategic plan to clarify the organization’s “roadmap” for members and stakeholders alike. And, you need to satisfy each of your members to ensure their continued support and engagement. Lots of time!

Governments do like umbrella groups because they usually speak for a broad group; but then so can a well functioning Task Force. An umbrella group suggests a long-term investment in the pursuit of stated objectives versus the one-issue, short-term approach of most task forces. Umbrella groups do provide confidence for their members because of their well-defined governance requirements.

 

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