Governing for Good

Governing for Good February 8, 2016

Ongoing ASAE Foundation research is creating a picture of enduringly effective governing structures, practices, and roles in membership associations—and, more importantly, how leaders and organizations are getting there. Critical truths: Culture trumps structure, and the journey to effective governance is as important as the destination.

When solar energy was just an incidental part of the world-energy conversation, some decade-plus ago, the board of the Solar Electric Power Association focused much of its effort on supporting SEPA operations. But with the industry’s rise in prominence on the energy landscape, the advent of full-time staff support, and rapid organizational growth, savvy leaders at SEPA recognized that ongoing impact demanded a visionary board to help guide the organization’s strategic direction.

99% The percentage of high-performing boards that operated under a strategic plan, in recent ASAE research.

That meant change in the board’s role, makeup, and focus, but not overnight, and not at the expense of loyal volunteers who had contributed so much to SEPA. Today’s SEPA board looks and functions far differently from the board of old, and happily so, as a result of bold leadership, a deliberate plan, sensitivity, patience, and no small amount of courage.

The SEPA story of governance change and others documented in Transformational Governance: How Boards Achieve Extraordinary Change—by Beth Gazley, Ph.D., of Indiana University, and board consultant Katha Kissman—underscore the evolutionary nature of association governance, the situational and human dynamics at play, and two central truths of the ongoing ASAE Foundation research that underpins the book: First, a culture that can bend engrained habits for the good of the organization is more important than the structural considerations. And, second, the journey to better governance is just as important as the destination.

On the latter, the research, which drew from the experience of more than 80 organizations, confirmed that the journey to better governance typically brought objectives into sharper focus for the leaders. On the former, the research found that structural components have some bearing on board performance. For example, the foundation’s 2013 study of high-performing boards, which used a survey of 1,585 association CEOs (What Makes High-Performing Boards, by Beth Gazley, Ph.D., and Ashley Bowers), noted that boards of 16 to 20 members were more likely than others to perform board-development activities and less likely to report high staff turnover. But at the end of the day, three cultural characteristics set high-performing boards apart:

A strong strategic focus. Ninety-nine percent were operating under a strategic plan, typically developed jointly by staff and board, and board meetings in more than half of the organizations studied devoted at least 25 percent of board meeting time to strategic discussions.

A culture of learning, self-assessment, and accountability. As a belief and practice, the highest-performing boards were about continual learning. They might not have the answers to every problem or situation out of the gate, but they exhibit a commitment to investing in learning—including how to embody effective governance practices.

Effective recruitment and development practices. They were more likely to recruit broadly, screen prospects, and hold competitive elections. The result: CEOs were half as likely to report challenges finding and retaining qualified board members.

Not surprisingly, such cultural considerations are front and center in the SEPA and other case studies included in Transformational Governance, which is not the last chapter in the ASAE Foundation’s exploration of association governance. Also in the works, in a more formative stage, is rigorous research into the selection processes that populate association boards. More on that later in 2016.