Drawing on the experience of South African debate growth, this article seeks to expand upon best practices for establishing debating societies in a sustainable manner.
Since its formal inception in 1996, competitive debating in the Southern African region has grown in relative leaps and bounds. 1 Whereas initially only a small amount of universities were involved in debate events, the past few years have seen a proliferation of debating unions in South Africa and the surrounding countries. Notwithstanding this growth, as can be seen from the global rankings and performance at international tournaments, 2 Southern Africa still has a long way to go in comparison to more established debating circuits in terms of development of sustainable capacity and depth.
Adopting best practices represents one of the best ways to attain the above goals, not just in training speakers and adjudicators, but also when organising debating unions and tournaments. By institutionalising these best practices, one is able to create a platform for organic growth and development. However, accomplishing this is not necessarily as simple as adopting a one-size-fits-all approach or the models and best practices of other regions. This is, in part, due to the financial and logistical constraints that Southern Africa faces, not only for the region in general, but also at times within an institution itself. Another aspect which is intrinsically linked to this is a lack of institutional memory, which often forces unions to repeat the mistakes of the past.
This contribution seeks to expand upon the types of best practices for establishing debating societies in a sustainable manner within the Southern African region. This submission is mostly based on observation, which are derived both from the personal experience of the author in running and establishing debating societies, as well as conversations and contributions garnered from current and former debaters in the region. I discuss aspects related to society structure, organic growth, retaining institutional memory, building support structures, improving competitive debating and fundraising and conclude with practical suggestions related to these components of debate. Throughout the course of the contribution I argue that debate societies should adopt fluid structures and that inter-societal participation should be supported as it contributes to the holistic experience of debaters and leads to a dissemination of knowledge regarding training and developmental practices. This, in turn, allows for greater growth within a local region, which allows for greater competition, ultimately leading to a higher potential for capacity development within and throughout societies.
2. Society Structure
When setting up a debating society, I argue that societies should prioritize function over form to best avoid situations in which a society becomes bogged down by its own inner workings. Accordingly, the first thing to be mindful of is the reality facing a particular university and its students. At some universities, student societies are given vast funding and institutional support, whereas at others there is practically none to speak of; some lend themselves out to a more flexible extra-curricular schedule, whereas others have to deal with the fact that their students will mostly only be on campus between the hours of 08:00 and 17:00. As a result, when laying the foundations for a society, it is not always the best idea to attempt to slavishly reproduce the methods or workings of other societies. This section expands upon best practices which seek to promote relevance and adaptability within societies.
2.1 Starting a society
When starting a society, there is no point in having an overly rigid management structure with various committees or officeholders which may create situations in which every active member is required yet potentially unwilling to hold an executive position. A more dynamic approach would be to assess how many people will be necessary for regular activities given the size and stated goals of the society. At first, all that is really needed is two or three people to communicate with and recruit members, carry out general and financial administration, and be in charge of competitive debating aspects such as internal leagues and setting motions for practice rounds. As membership grows, it becomes more possible to have people specifically tasked with marketing, strategic development, training, and value-added aspects such as schools debating and exhibition events. Later on, there may even be a need to form sub-committees to assist in some of these aspects.
I believe that an inclusive yet critical ideology is best suited for growing a society. Due to the fact that debating seeks to promote different points of view, a debating society should accordingly seek to be apolitical in the broader sense of the word. In other words, the society should seek to take an unbiased position with regard to party-political and religious matters, and I would argue that a the founding documentation of a society should state this expressly. Any affiliation to political and/or religious societies or overt stances on such subjects will also have a direct effect of alienating potential members. 3 Bear in mind that being apolitical does not mean that structures within a society should not be democratic, or that the society should discipline or discourage members who publicly profess a particular point of view.
2.2 Formalising a society
The administration of societies differs from university to university. Accordingly, it may be necessary to draft a constitution from the start, whereas for others initially operating on a loose set of principles and best practices will be best. However, at some point in time, it does become necessary to put pen to paper. In this regard, it is important to bear certain principles in mind:
i. Determining membership, meetings, and management
The most important aspects to cover in a constitution relates to these three things. Prior to drafting a constitution, I believe that there should therefore be consensus on the guiding principles relating to these aspects. When drafting, keep in mind the following:
- Who are allowed to be members? How do they become members? What are the rights and/or duties of members? Is there a cost implication for membership?
- How long does membership last? Can or should membership be terminated?
- How often should all members of the society formally meet? What should be discussed and/or done at formal meetings? What about when a member requests a formal meeting?
- Who should manage the society? How should they do so? How are they appointed?
- What should be the duties of various office holders in the society?
- How do we hold office holders accountable?
I find that the answers to these questions often generate further questions. With regard to meetings, I believe that frequency (insofar as it is practicable) should be strived for, as it helps in both generating interest and maintaining relationships within a society. If frequency is unattainable, strive for consistency, so that members at least know how, when, where and what to expect. 4 Covering these general aspects lays the foundation for a holistic, fluid and relevant constitution.
ii. When drafting use plain, clear language
The best practice is to clearly set out the vision, principles, practices and proposed structures using plain, unambiguous language. Keep things straight and simple and be mindful that future iterations of the society must be able to easily interpret the constitution. Forgetting this may create confusion or a situation in which a society is bound by nonsensical provisions, creating a situation in which redrafting or (even worse) a side-lining of the constitution occurs. If societies are struggling, or want to make sure there aren’t any obvious loopholes in the document, it is rarely a bad idea to seek advice from a law student. If your institution does not offer law, or there are members who are law students, outside assistance should be asked for; many debaters are more than willing to provide precedents or advice for a good cause.
3. Society Growth
When attempting to grow a society, it is important to note that a focus should not simply be on size, but also on depth. In order to achieve organic and sustainable growth, it is submitted that it is much better to focus on improving the number of active members and on member retention rather than spending time and money on broad marketing which may not be successful. In addition, broad marketing campaigns are not always possible when a society is in its starting phases, as the manpower required for such endeavours will probably not be available yet.
3.1 Member recruitment
When attempting to recruit new members, targeted marketing tends to work substantially better in getting people who are interested in debating. People are inundated with in-your-face marketing on all fronts, and unless one has the money to drown out the others, posters have very little impact, while emails and social media invitations are often ignored unless the individual has some kind of interest or context already. 5 A cost-effective tactic is to talk to lecturers or heads of department in various fields and to ask them to assist you by giving 5 minutes of a lecture to talk about debating. Many debaters have some kind of background or interest in law, philosophy, politics, economics or history; these are the types of groups where society founders could easily convince academics to part with some time, while also being able to pique the interest of some students, emphasising both the value of and experiences gained through debating.
One of the ways in growing an interested potential membership base for the future is by marketing to schools in the university’s catchment area. More established societies tend to forgo this practice, as they will presumably be involved with (or be outright running) some kind of school debating league. I would argue that constant and relevant exposure to local schools is key to promoting long-term sustainable growth in size and depth. Some schools have open content periods where they invite guest speakers or have enrichment sessions, and talking to a school to find out about running an exhibition debate to show learners the value of debating is always a great idea. Have a fun debate, not an overly serious one, and get audience members to both laugh and think. Afterwards invite questions from the floor and talk to senior learners about what their plans for university are. This exposes people to the fun and different styles of debating, and will also assist in branding the society to school debaters (who might have been considering going somewhere else or simply quitting debate after school). You can even encourage and assist these students with setting up debate societies in their schools.
3.2 Member retention
Once a society has a steady stream of members, it is valuable to ensure that they stay involved. Constant communication with members about events, successes, and member can work very well, for instance through the use of weekly newsletters via email. 6 Beyond this, not all people who join a debating society may be interested (or at least not initially) in competitive debating and by broadening the range of activities membership retention can also be encouraged. Things such as inviting guest speakers and arranging public speaking contests, forum discussions, or philosophical groups will get people interested and help them stay involved. Hosting specialist debating events such as law, science or historical debates, is also a good way to intrigue, retain and develop members knowledgeable in particular fields of study while also serving as a gateway to expose new individuals interested in those fields to the art of debating.
When determining what to do, it’s best to talk to members, to find out what they’d like to participate in and who would be able to help organise such events. Lastly, bear in mind that social interaction outside of normal activities can help build friendships and networks. Accordingly, the odd social gathering, be it formal or informal, after a debating meeting should be encouraged.
4. Accessible Competitive Debating
Whereas it is not (nor should be) the only focus of a debating society, competitive debating will most likely be the primary one. In order to run a successful league, only a handful of very basic things are needed, namely:
- Someone to arrange a venue: The more central the better. Normally it’s a good idea to keep it at the same time and same place in order to be consistent and make scheduling easier
- Someone to set motions: This can either be done by a Chief Adjudicator, by a committee, or (at first) by simply randomly selecting motions from a range of online databases. 7
- Someone to keep track and communicate: It’s a good idea to draft a list of speakers and adjudicators in order to know who tends to come to debates and to even (if possible) confirm their attendance. Over and above this, it’s also important to keep track of any feedback and results so as to track speaker and adjudicator development.
Always be mindful of the realities of your campus. For some, league sessions are weekly occurrences happening at night or over lunch, whereas for others it consists of a concentrated session of multiple rounds over set weekends. Ask members about their schedules and plan and communicate well in advance. It is important to note that being structured does not equate with being rigid: some universities will have different league structures at different points in the year to accommodate the logistic constraints that a variety of students may face due to the academic calendar and other challenges. This variety makes it possible for individuals who would normally not be able to be actively involved to in fact do so.
Without funding even the best intentions and plans can never come to their full fruition. Whereas some societies are fortunate to receive direct funding and assistance from their university, for many this is either unavailable entirely or not enough to do everything necessary to run a debating society. One of the easiest and most direct ways of establishing a cash flow is to charge a membership fee. For most societies, this is standard practice, though others tend to shy away from it, presumably for fear of deterring potential members from joining. I would argue that a fee should be charged, but be set in such a manner that it both relates to the realities of a particular campus, as well as with regard to how many members a society wants or is traditionally able to recruit. I have found that charging a membership fee, however small, serves to create some form of bond and incentive for a person to be involved in order to ensure that they get what they paid for. However, given that some societies shy away from this approach, or still not raise enough, it is important to have access to and knowledge of a variety of alternate fundraising methods.
A method of fundraising that is particularly popular with more established societies is to set up an old members’ network (of former debaters who have since started working) as a method to ask for donations. Whereas some individuals are able to give relatively large donations, I argue that a far more sustainable model is to ask for small amounts, which then add up to quite a sizable contribution as time goes by and the number of old members increase. Setting up such a funding model is relatively easy, as it only requires a database of members to be established for purposes of communication, and to arrange functions periodically where former members are invited to address the society, network, and reminisce. Communication in this manner also has ancillary benefits, such as the ability to retain institutional memory, as some of those members may come back for other events, and be able to provide their expertise and advice. Should a group of debaters wish to start such a programme but don’t have a database of old members, most universities normally have alumni relations programmes which could be of use. In this regard, it is as simple as making an appointment, explaining what the founders wish to do, and asking to send a message to former students should they wish to donate or get involved.
Last but not least, societies can approach companies for sponsorship. When doing so, keep in mind the following:
- Do the research: By looking at a company’s corporate profile on its website, one can glean whether it will be likely to assist projects, and how best to contact the company. If this is problematic, give the company a courtesy call, and explain to them the nature, goals and needs of the society. This type of initial engagement may help in opening doors and ensure that proposals are sent to the right individuals, rather than to a general email account. Talking to friends and former members who may know individuals at companies could also help to get a foot in the door. Furthermore, always ensure to engage and follow up in a proper and relevant manner. Some firms require all relevant information upfront, whereas others simply want to know the bare essentials at first. Also, public funding and corporate funding often have different ways of being applied for, and they have different things they want to know about. By contacting individuals beforehand, one is able to find out what is required, and provide them with the information that is most pertinent.
- Be specific rather than general: Most companies like to know exactly what a society wants and how they plan to spend it. In this regard, it is best to approach a company and ask for money for a specific event or project rather than with a general request. For larger projects, such as tournaments, requests can be compartmentalised by asking that a specific day/function/aspect be funded. Often companies have specific mandates when it comes to providing sponsorship, and it helps if you are able to show a company how a particular project relates to their goals.
- Show what the benefits are: Potential sponsors often need to show what value can be derived from their social investments. 8 It is therefore important to highlight both the potential direct and indirect benefits. Direct benefits tend to include access/exposure to students for the purposes of marketing and recruitment and tax-deductibility if one is able to affiliate with the university or register as a Non-Profit Organisation. 9 Indirect benefits normally relate to the fact that involvement with debating can be reflected as positive Corporate Social Investment. 10 A further potential benefit, especially with regard to certain projects such as schools or township debating projects 11 is that investment could be reflected as socio-economic development expenditure in terms of Black Economic Empowerment legislation. 12Similarly, if a society is situated at a formerly disadvantaged university, this benefit could apply directly to the society itself. When affiliating with a particular university, be mindful of the financial oversight and administrative procedures that may be applicable as a result.
- Maintain a relationship: Once funding has been secured, make sure to stay in touch. Report back on the successes of the project was funded. Keep sponsors informed about upcoming or proposed projects which they may be interested in. This information will often be put to good use by the sponsor, and will help ensure that they are willing and able to assist again.
- Don’t take things for granted: From time to time, societies will receive large amounts of funding from willing companies. Firstly, it is important to note that these types of sponsorships are the exception rather than the rule, and they are often influenced by a myriad of factors, including changes in the economy, legislation, company policy, and corporate governance codes, to name a few. Even in the instance where a large sponsor is successfully secured it is still best to maintain the relationship, while also carrying on looking for alternate funding in the event where situations change.
- Don’t get disillusioned: It is not uncommon to spend time and money on a sponsorship proposal, only to get rejected. This is a reality of life. The more one asks, the higher the likelihood that one will receive.
6. Building support structures
As a society grows and becomes more involved in competitive debating, it should seek to expand and improve its competitive edge. It is at this stage that it becomes important to put in place support structures in order to facilitate these aspects. With regards to debate development, adopting training programmes and discussion groups in order to improve speakers and adjudicators is both valuable and crucial. Fortunately, a variety of training materials are available online, 13 and there are many individuals who will gladly devote their time (often for free) in order to assist with training. It is also possible to address any logistical constraints by asking individuals to videotape training sessions or to ask someone to lead an online workshop (where all that is needed is a venue, a microphone and a webcam).
An additional way of expanding both the pool of experience and potential membership is to either get involved with or set up a schools programme. As already noted, this exposes learners to competitive debating at an early age, and is a way to identify and develop talent before even getting to university, while also actively marketing to individuals who would, in all likelihood, be willing to join the society when reaching university. The best way to start off with schools debating is to contact local schools in the area to find out whether they would be interested in assistance, and whether they are already part of any endeavours to promote competitive debating at schools level. Yet again, here one should not be afraid to ask for the assistance of members from other societies for advice or insight.
One of the best ways to expand the reach of the above endeavours and cement them is to build and maintain intra-institutional relationships with various departments, units or management structures by advocating for the ways in which debating can help assist with particular stated goals of the university. Doing so could provide administrative and/or financial assistance, and most importantly will serve to generate and promote goodwill, continuity, and consistency.
Institutional memory serves as a way to identify what strategies work, and it is important to learn from past societal endeavours to ensure that mistakes are not repeated. The preservation of documentation such as training manuals, preparation materials, constitutions, committee decisions and strategic policies is very important. As mentioned above, a database of old members can also reap massive rewards. Ideally it should be the specific duty of a member of the society to start and maintain these databases. With online tools such as Google Docs and Dropbox, it has become increasingly easy to set up, convert and maintain such resources in a manner that is simple to track and transfer.
7. Inter-societal participation
One of the best ways of expanding influence is to forge strategic alliances and engage in inter-societal participation. In this regard, one should distinguish between the benefits and methods of participation with other entities within a university (intra-institutional), and participating with debating societies at other universities (inter-institutional).
The benefits of intra-institutional participation include instantly expanding the potential membership pool by exposure to the members of other societies and saving limited funds by combining resources for projects. When choosing societies to pair with, it is important to abide by the principle of political, religious and ideological neutrality, as already noted. Neutral and obvious choices include societies which also have critical outlooks or try to stimulate dialogue, such as law/moot societies, language societies, and historical and philosophical societies. When approaching such societies, identify common goals and projects, and show where there might be scope for cooperation and how particular skills of members may be of assistance (even if it’s just running an exhibition debate for their members about a particular topic). Be careful to overly formalise things though, it is important that one does not land up in a situation which is no longer mutually beneficial which one cannot get out of.
Inter-institutional participation helps in building relationships and a reputation within the greater debating community. It helps gauge the strength of members in a competitive environment, and can also expose them to new methods of preparation and argumentation. Organising events such as mini-tournaments against local universities can be done quickly and with little to no cost involved. It also leads to greater communication between societies, which may enable one to run joint programmes for mutual benefit. Often societies will have ideas for projects that they are not able to run on their own due to a lack of funds or manpower, and partnerships can help overcome these obstacles.
For many, competitive debate is a pervasive aspect of life. Debating enables its participants to travel the world, encounter new cultures, and to contribute to the marketplace of ideas on various levels. The South African debating context, while having its own nuanced complexities and particular constraints, is not wholly unique in the challenges it faces. While some readers of this contribution may feel it is nothing more than a restatement of common sense, I would argue that formal publication creates the foundation for retaining institutional memory which can be truly useful to new societies, or could help other societies to reflect on, and possibly even change, components which may be redundant or function poorly. I reiterate that there is no one-size-fits-all approach, nor is there a guarantee for successful sustainability. However, bearing in mind that contexts may differ, I would still argue that through applying and testing the mettle of guidelines such as those found in this article, one can expand on the knowledge base of societies, in the strive for holistic improvement.
- It should be noted that there was competitive debating in South Africa prior to 1996, but the date has significance due to it being the year in which the first South African National Universities Debating Championships were hosted, and where the founding constitution of the South African Universities Debate Council was drafted and adopted. ↩
- Of the current University debating rankings, only three South African Universities appear in the Top 100, specifically the universities of the Witwatersrand (23), Cape Town (61) and Pretoria (96). Information available at http://idebate.org/wudc/rankings – Last accessed 2 November 2013 ↩
- Student party politics create massive ideological rifts between students who are similar for all other intents and purposes, and often conflict occurs at universities between these various parties. Recent examples include “DA Youth opens case against SASCO” (22 August 2013) and “Insults hurled ahead of Malema speech”26 September 2013 (Respectively available at http://www.news24.com/SouthAfrica/Politics/DA-Youth-opens-case-against-Sasco-20130822 and http://www.news24.com/SouthAfrica/News/Insults-hurled-ahead-of-Malema-speech-20130926 – Last accessed on 28 November 2013) ↩
- This is also expanded on below. ↩
- This phenomenon is known as “communication fatigue,” and is becoming more of a problem when trying to market to and communicate with potential members. See Healy, “Communication fatigue disrupts marketing messages” (The Globe and Mail, 10 July 2012) – Available at http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/small-business/sb-marketing/advertising/communication-fatigue-disrupts-marketing-messages/article4402374/ (Last accessed 19 November 2013) ↩
- A good example of free software to make eye-catching newsletters can be found at http://mailchimp.com/ ↩
- A good starting point would be something like IDEA’s list of Top 100 Debates (Available at http://idebate.org/view/top_100_debates) – Last Accessed 28 November 2013 ↩
- The new Companies Act 71 of 2008 along with the Companies Regulations, 2011 provide for the formation of Social and Ethics Committees to assess activities such as sponsorship and social investment. ↩
- In terms of Section 18A of the Income Tax Act 58 of 1962, most university donations are seen to be charitable and therefore deductible. For more information on registering as a Non-Profit Organisation, visit http://www.dsd.gov.za/npo/ – Last accessed 28 November 2013. ↩
- This has become even more pertinent due to new corporate governance principles in the form of the third King Code on Corporate Governance in SA 2009 (Institute of Directors, available at http://www.iodsa.co.za/?page=kingIII). ↩
- Such as the TDL Project run by Ubunye at the University of Cape Town (http://ubunye.org.za/about/ – Last accessed 6 November 2013) ↩
- As regulated by the Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment Act 53 of 2003, read along with Series 500 of the most recent Code of Good Practice (GN1019/2013) ↩
- Available from sites such as http://idebate.org/ and, more locally http://www.youtube.com/user/TuksNationals2011/ ↩