Governance Articles

Honey, I Shrunk The Board Now What?

The association community has been caught up in downsizing, rightsizing and bitesizing boards and spent tons of money on it. Not that rightsizing isn't a fine idea, and we've helped many organizations do it, but I've become convinced that it misses a fundamental point that needs to be addressed first: What should the core purpose of the board be? The answer: strategic thinking. I've seen small boards become insular and focused on personal agendas and I've seen large boards, and even houses of delegates, be strategic.

One of the pitfalls in determining board size is the myth of representation. This has spawned huge, convocation-like boards in some organizations that still could never be big enough to deliver the "representation" they purport to provide. It also has spawned the myth of power and influence. If people on a board are pursuing their special interests, they're violating one of the three duties of board members, the duty of loyalty. This means that board members must subordinate parochial interests (personal, geographic, specialty) to the good of the whole. Avoid the "representation" issue. That's a red herring anyway.

Organizational culture (a woefully misunderstood and overlooked area of management) is crucial to determining board size and function. This is why guidelines or a one-size-fits-all approach will likely fail you. Culture development and understanding begins with determining your preferred future among possible alternative futures, then crafting a mission that clarifies what you do, then agreeing on values and standards of behavior and performance. The outcome is consensus on where you are going and how to get there so all members of the board are pulling together.

A strategic board should constantly be assessing drivers of change in the profession, industry or organization and adjusting business, program and management strategies accordingly. This environmental analysis role of the board is supported by environmental scanning - the collection of the data, information and knowledge for their assessment. Consultants, staff, sections and chapters or a combination can do scanning.

If you don't have a formal environmental scanning process, consider creating one and utilize your components to feed intelligence in their areas of expertise to the staff and board. The resulting knowledge base is a great product for the association as well as being a guide for seeing advantages and avoiding pitfalls. The components will see their scanning work being used in meaningful ways, and they'll be able to see how their intelligence fits with other areas of the profession or industry. That's real input. The board will have excellent intelligence on which to base their thinking and the staff will move past ambiguity and be able to create program and management strategies that really accomplish something.

Bottom line, it isn't how big or small the board is that matters. It's what it does that does.

This article was published in the December 14, 2001 issue of Association Trends magazine

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