Governance Articles

A View From The Outside In

If you were to suggest to your members that you could run their business or practice their profession, they would probably sputter with indignation. However, directors usually feel fully qualified to tell you how to practice your profession of association management. Every member feels qualified to run for office with no prior experience, and to serve as the micromanaging director or officer of a multimillion dollar association. They see no inconsistency between these viewpoints.

Boards Sidetracked by Busywork

The way most association boards are organized tends magnify this problem. Directors receive voluminous board books prior to each meeting, chock full of operational issues that they are unqualified to decide and should be left to the staff. Occupied with this busywork, they neglect the fundamental responsibility of an association board, which is to create the future for the association and its members. This they are qualified to do, because as members, they are in a better position than staff to assess member needs and establish goals and objectives to meet them.

Although creating the future is the appropriate role for an association's governing body, the policymaking structure and process are often ponderous and slow-moving, and therefore unsuited to today's need for rapid response to changing circumstances. The governance structures of most associations and professional societies were devised after World War II, when America ruled the world and associations tended to be social organizations. The emphasis then was on giving everyone a chance to hold office, serve on committees, and to "participate."

Today's Member Demands are Different

Today the world is very different. Most members are watching their pennies and have little time to "serve" for the sake of serving. Members increasingly join an association or professional society because they want help in making it in an increasingly difficult marketplace. Meet their needs and they will stay with you. Fall short and they will quit.

Governance is Obsolete

The world has changed but most associations have not. The ponderous governance structures remain. Since huge boards can get little done, work must be delegated to an executive committee. This immediately breeds jealousy and resentment among the board members who aren't on the executive committee. This results in gridlock and arguments over petty decisions. Meanwhile, no one is creating a future for the association.

In such cases, the staff is often forced to step in and fill the vacuum by default. This may work in the short run, because it keeps the organization moving along. Ultimately, however, the gridlocked board turns on the staff, accusing it of usurping the power of the board and creating (heaven forbid) a "staff-driven association."

Reinvent Your Board

What is the solution? Associations need to learn that it doesn't require meetings to meet member needs. Having large boards to represent the interests of every geographic area or interest group provides no assurance that those members will be any better served than by a small, strategic board. Modern communications technology allows the association to stay in touch with member opinion much more frequently and in depth than in the past. If this opinion is properly factored into the strategic planning process, member needs will have a much greater influence on the association's goals and objectives than is the case today.

How big should an association board of directors be? A good rule of thumb is that it should be small enough so that all the members can sit around a table and thoroughly discuss all issues, with every member expressing his or her point of view, without needing Roberts' Rules of Order. It should be small enough so that an executive committee is unnecessary, since the entire board can meet by conference call when an important issue arises. Otherwise, the officers can act for the board.

Outside Directors

Perhaps the most revolutionary and most promising way to professionalize your volunteer board is to have a small number of outside members. This is a concept that is gaining wide acceptance in the corporate world and has equal applicability for associations and professional societies. Outside directors could be successful and respected chief staff officers of other, noncompetitive associations and nonprofits. Outside strategic planning consultants could also be an important asset. They would bring to the volunteer board a strong dose of professional know-how of how an association should be run.

Outside directors should serve as the board's audit committee, evaluating adherence to the strategic plan, ethics, values and finances. As a disinterested expert third party, this committee would provide the volunteer board members with the requisite knowledge and expertise to serve as the effective governing body of the association. Only when there is a governance structure that is professionally qualified, streamlined and strategically focused can it create a future for the association and its members.

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