Build a Fit-for-Purpose Board in The Turbulent Twenties

De Cagna_fit for purpose board June 22, 2022 By: Jeff De Cagna, FASAE

The uncertainty, volatility, and risk that associations have experienced over the past two-plus years make clear that boards must elevate their performance. Here’s how to create a board capable of setting a higher standard of stewardship, governing, and foresight.

As of June 2022, we are roughly 25 percent through The Turbulent Twenties. To say this decade is off to a rocky start would be an immense understatement. Unfortunately, it is not an overstatement to suggest that while most of the 2020s are still ahead of us, our situation will get worse unless we take immediate action on the existential threats facing our associations, our country, and our world.

Association boards and CEOs appear ready to get on with the “new normal,” yet they must resist that temptation because nothing happening now is normal. Instead, it is the foreseeable result of collective neglect, declining institutions, and fragile systems that can no longer withstand the pressure of what I refer to as “the discontinuous next”—the relentless and radical uncertainty, volatility, and risk unleashed by the COVID-19 pandemic and its follow-on consequences.

This is a moment of truth for association decision-makers. Will they conclude that they are finally ready to tackle the most challenging issues before them, or will they continue their predecessors’ decades-long tradition of using the future as a dumping ground for wicked problems? The stakes of this decision could not be higher.

Three Foundational Beliefs of a Fit-for-Purpose Board

If your association determines that it is prepared to act, it will need to build a fit-for-purpose board capable of guiding your organization into an unforgiving future. Building a fit-for-purpose board requires letting go of historical expectations of boards, including shifting away from association management’s orthodox beliefs about governing and moving on from so-called board best practices better suited to a stable and predictable world.

To replace these increasingly outmoded ways of thinking and acting, association professionals must dare to imagine that every aspect of what boards are and what they do can be different from what we have been told over many decades. To spark your imagination, here are three foundational beliefs upon which your association should begin to build its fit-for-purpose board:

The fit-for-purpose board views the association as an essential 21st-century societal institution. Outside the world of associations, organizations in this community are frequently regarded as mere “special interests,” concerned only with perpetuating their existence by defending the status quo for their members, often at the expense of the public good. While we must candidly acknowledge that this dynamic exists in some organizations, we also know that associations are capable of substantial positive-sum impact. The fit-for-purpose board understands the association must function as a 21st-century societal institution that honors its deep roots in the American experience by accepting the forward-looking responsibility to address complex and controversial issues and achieve mutually beneficial outcomes on behalf of a broader universe of stakeholders.

The fit-for-purpose board prioritizes its system responsibilities. The traditional approach to governing places considerable emphasis on the board’s handling of the association’s financial, legal, oversight, and policy concerns as a standalone nonprofit entity. There is no doubt that fulfilling fiduciary duties will remain a required function of association boards, but that does not mean their responsibilities end with the board manual, budget, and bylaws. For the fit-for-purpose board, the current crisis of institutional legitimacy in our country is a call to action to work with decision-makers in other organizations operating within and adjacent to the association’s professional community or industry ecosystem. By pursuing sustained and purposeful collaboration, the fit-for-purpose board can ensure they leave those systems for which they share responsibility better than how they found them.

The fit-for-purpose board stands up for its successors’ future. Association orthodoxy encourages boards and CEOs to invest in strategic planning activities to “prepare for the future.” This sounds like a good idea in concept, but in practice, we know that strategic planning has little to do with the future and everything to do with asserting board control over current association activities. This is just one item on a lengthy list of shortcomings that should encourage associations to reject orthodoxy and adopt a fresh approach to strategy. The fit-for-purpose board recognizes that it must stand up for the future by taking a step back from strategy-making, enabling younger and more diverse staff and voluntary contributors to take on primary responsibility for developing strategy as a process of learning with current stakeholders. This choice frees the board to devote its finite and precious attention to fulfilling its duty of foresight by focusing on long-term thinking and action that will benefit their direct and indirect successors, including people the board will never know personally.

Association Boards Must Become More

Embracing these foundational beliefs is a necessary first step in shifting from “being a board” that completes its traditional and expected activities but little else to “becoming a board” that continuously builds its capacity to make meaningful progress toward the association’s essential outcomes in The Turbulent Twenties and beyond. The endeavor to become a fit-for-purpose board requires setting a higher standard of stewardship, governing, and foresight grounded in deep and ongoing coordination, cooperation, and collaboration between and among directors, officers, their staff partners, and other contributors.

This crucial moment in the historical trajectory of associations demands a clear-eyed assessment of the magnitude of the challenges before us. Among these myriad challenges, it is complacency that may well be the most acute short-term threat, the same complacency that has placed far too many associations in harm’s way from this decade’s earliest days. This article is an earnest appeal to association decision-makers to heed the warning of the last two years: continued delay in shaping the future for the better and continued optimism that the future will meet our high expectations are incompatible choices.

Starting today, association boards must become more. Even though it will be difficult work, building fit-for-purpose boards is our community’s best hope for shifting The Turbulent Twenties in a more favorable direction for ourselves, our stakeholders, and our successors.

Jeff De Cagna, FASAE

Jeff De Cagna, FRSA, FASAE, is executive advisor for Foresight First LLC in Reston, Virginia.