Are We Pursuing Best Practices or Common Practices?

One association executive believes associations are collectively perpetuating a bank of practices that just don't work anymore.

Last November, while preparing for the CAE examination, our chief operating officer regularly discussed her study materials and practice test questions with both her study group and our staff. These were refreshing conversations.

One day, she observed that many organizations now follow a specific model that generates practices consistent with its guiding principles and systemically eliminates many of the tiresome, decades-old problems still being addressed by workshops. Then she inquired, "Why don't many of these best-practice examples relate to us, and why am I learning practices that we have discarded here at APT?"

What then ensued was a robust discussion about whether the association community is perpetuating common practices rather than best practices.

CEOs should not cogovern boards nor should boards comanage organizations.

Alas, I think we often are. Acknowledging that study materials don't come directly from the CAE exam itself, these  study questions still capture commonly accepted practices in the association community. This response listed as correct however, is troublesome: "Regarding the relationship between staff and volunteers, the CEO is accountable for committee performance but has no authority."

Any college business major would immediately identify this disparity between authority and accountability as an unacceptable condition of employment. Yet, we are perpetuating the practice by which boards continue to comanage our organizations. Are we fostering yet another generation of "chief administrators" who knowingly chuckle at the old axiom, "Always keep a volunteer between you and the problem," and, by doing so, divert their boards from focusing upon their more legitimate and meaningful responsibilities?

Another example of a response deemed correct is: "The CEO might best help a badly split board decide whether or not to increase membership dues by assigning several directors to develop and report a compromise recommendation to the board."  

This action presents two problems. First, most boards probably still approve membership dues schedules, a practice that dilutes the role and authority of their CEOs and limits the ability of these boards to hold their CEOs solely and wholly responsible for organizational performance. Second, just as CEOs should appoint volunteer members to management or program committees, board chairs should appoint directors to board committees. CEOs should not cogovern boards nor should boards comanage organizations.

A systemic shift and better practices, whether or not involving organizational models, are needed in many instances. Rather than dictate what they must do, boards should define what their CEOs cannot fail to do and, in the process, create policy corrals within which CEOs can more proactively generate the programs necessary to work toward and accomplish board-approved outcomes or impacts. Boards, in turn, should evaluate whether their outcomes were accomplished within parameters that reflect organizational values. At first glance, this approach may seem radical or heretical, but by using it, the creation of the annual budget, the establishment of program objectives, and the appointment of program committees become what they really are: critical management tools.

Help might be on the way, as association CEOs, often via ASAE & The Center discussion panels, are increasingly dedicating their collective wisdom at meetings and conferences to address cutting-edge concepts such as how organizations might more flexibly and nimbly embrace change.

It's time to stop confusing best practices with random solutions, quick fixes, and other Band-Aids. It's time to more effectively align board and CEO responsibilities with the unique expertise of each. It's time to launch a passionate discussion with our colleagues and boards about systemic changes that elevate the best practices passed to each new generation of CEOs via our conferences, the CAE exam, and in all of the collective knowledge we share.

William M. Burns, CAE, is CEO of the Association for Play Therapy in Clovis, California. Email: [email protected]