The Transparent Board

By: David Nour

Thanks to social media—and a more connected society in general—association boards need to be more available, more flexible, and more data savvy than ever. In an excerpt from his book Return on Impact: Leadership Strategies for the Age of Connected Relationships, David Nour discusses five ways association boards will need to change.

"If social [media] can take down the government of Egypt, it can take down your organization," Doug Chia, assistant general counsel and corporate secretary of Johnson & Johnson, said in a recent interview with Corporate Secretary magazine. So who should own social at your association? It isn't a function to assign to a 20-something staffer to increase Twitter followers or Facebook likes. If senior leaders of visionary organizations truly seek not only to develop a strategic direction with social but also to dramatically affect their organizations and industries, they must reexamine their structure and governance models.

Why? Because the immediacy and ungoverned nature of social is in direct conflict with the hierarchical and controlled business structure of many institutions. Culture and community, the cornerstones of social, thrive and perform when they're trusted and tracked, not when they're commanded and controlled.

For social to become a viable enabler of growth, an organization must not only assemble a critical mass of talent at its board and senior leadership ranks, but it also must align leadership's responsibilities and skills with the organization's growth strategies. World-class organizations consistently assess talent requirements at multiple levels, for current as well as anticipated requirements of the organization. When that assessment is done, they then map clear board enhancement and leadership-development targets and integrate accountability and performance expectations into their recruitment, succession, metrics, and reward or compensation processes. They don't make excuses about organizational size or inability to attract great board members. They systematically attract and build exceptional board members with the skills necessary to drive consistent and profitable growth.

Five pillars of change in the reinvention of the board will be critical to any organization's success. Let's take a closer look at each.

Distributed Accountability

Connected relationships have become more pervasive, which is a challenge for board members: Their responsibilities now cross geographic boundaries that reflect the global nature of social, and their roles will increasingly be filled by newly created positions with unique and borrowed skill sets. For instance, highly specialized senior leaders or board members may arrive "on loan" from other organizations or be brought in to provide independent and unique insights for a specified period.

Regardless of the organization's structure—membership-based association, service-delivery nonprofit, or advocacy network—social will redefine what it means for associations to be accountable. That's true not just during a scandal in an organization's sector (or within the organization itself) but also when contributors and volunteers demand resources be allocated properly and when regulators pressure associations to demonstrate consistent service to the public purpose to merit tax-exempt status. The world of social media demands prioritized and highly distributed accountability among competing demands of the organization. The organization, its board, and its senior leadership, mindful of to whom and for what it is accountable, owe accountability for disclosures, performance evaluations, self-regulation, active participation, and continuous adaptive and comparative learning.

As connected relationships tap into an organization's core and distributed activities, board members and senior leaders will be held accountable for the performance of groups that don't report solely to them. Indeed, the very definition of accountability as we've understood it—holding people responsible for their actions, or the means by which individuals and organizations report their actions—is being challenged by the immediacy and responsiveness required by social.

Connected relationships make the fundamental questions surrounding accountability—to whom and for what—more complicated, and social breaks it into three parts. There's upward accountability, which refers to relationships with donors, sponsors, foundations, government, and investors. As such, it is often focused on the use of resources. There's downward accountability, which refers to relationships with groups that receive services, such as members, customers, communities, or regions directly or indirectly affected by the organization. Finally, there's internal accountability, which refers to the relationships within the organization and the organization's responsibility to its market focus, mission, board stewardship, senior decision makers, and front-line implementers in the field.

If accountability is skewed to simply satisfy the interests of the most powerful or the biggest donors, it loses the credibility and trust bestowed upon the organization. However, if the voices of members are heard through social interactions and their loyalty is earned through listening and responding to perceived value—a response that starts with the board—distributed accountability becomes a source of power for the organization. Social fuels distributed accountability, which in turn influences who is able to hold whom to account for their decisions, performance, and actions on behalf of the broader constituents of the organization, instead of segregating it to a select few behind closed meetings or exotic "strategy retreats."

From a tactical standpoint, distributed accountability will reinvent board meetings. Discussions will look at performance not as a sequential series of events but as a complex web of solid- and dotted-line relationships in designing, developing, and delivering value-based touch points for members across the entire organization. Charts will show how social strategy has been embedded in other functions of the organization. Membership will be redefined as value-add to the broader community of practitioners, capabilities will be aligned with the membership lifecycle, and retention will be understood as a direct result of engagement and peer-level accountability.

Governance Councils

Traditional committees seldom function or succeed as a team. The personal agendas of individual committee members create distractions from the focused stewardship of the organization's strategy. An individual can succeed while the committee fails to deliver desired outcomes. Too often, consensus building and defending the status quo are the norm. Tenure in the organization or industry, name recognition, level of financial support, or favoritism may be the traditional nomination or selection criteria. Moreover, in many organizations, decision making and intentional actions become unnecessarily complex and can take too long, largely because of the structure and governance rules of traditional committees. As a result, the committees' responsibilities may be disengaged from the daily challenges of staff members, leading to a disconnect between strategy formulation and execution.

Successful governance councils function more like a sports franchise—a football team, for example—with a singular focus: to support the leadership in real time. Governance councils are composed of highly specialized individuals intentionally selected to perform specific functions that are directly relevant to their unique expertise. (Most would agree that a defensive lineman doesn't have the physical makeup or the skills to be a wide receiver, or vice versa.) Governance councils are composed of a hybrid of outside expertise, functional leaders, and front-line staff members who can bring their perspectives to the discussion of possible choices and an agile decision-making process.

For instance, imagine a digital governance council where all member- or customer-facing functions are represented to discuss the ways they engage and influence each member or customer. If touch-point details are shared across functions, the organization has a dramatically higher chance of ensuring the same level of experience and engagement, regardless of how people interact with the organization (website, mobile, local chapters, or regional or national conferences). Furthermore, all supporting functions could clearly understand their roles in support of this unified experience and engagement.

At the board level, developing a governance council to more effectively understand and leverage value-added touch points across the entire organization is a quality-control measure. It adds new rigor and discipline to the process of managing, using, improving, and protecting organizational information. Effective governance in this evolving area can enhance the quality, availability, and integrity of an organization's data by fostering cross-organizational collaboration and structured policy making. It replaces factional silos with organizational interest, directly affecting the four factors any organization should care about most:

  • increasing revenue per member or customer
  • lowering costs of acquiring a member or a customer
  • reducing risks associated with member engagement
  • increasing data confidence in each value-added touch point

As a common forum for board members and senior leaders to explore challenges and solutions, the governance council can become instrumental in developing benchmarks, best practices, and guidelines to successful member engagement. If the goal of the organization is to maximize its impact, a governance council would also benefit from insights from outsiders, industry partners, and thought leaders who can bring unique perspectives to the table.


A transformed board will require more robust formal and informal external partnerships. External partners often create very logical revenue-generating opportunities for member-based organizations, such as sponsoring an event or a research project. Unfortunately, that's a myopic way to think about external partnerships when it comes to broader member engagement or user experience.

For instance, most board members have heard of mobile applications; many probably use several on their smartphones. Yet mobile applications are not part of the strategic planning process in many organizations. Starbucks uses a website to generate thousands of ideas from its customers about how it can enhance their daily experiences. Procter & Gamble uses a website to generate thousands of innovative ideas from people who interact with its products on a daily basis. Virgin Atlantic Airways has developed a taxi-sharing app for smartphones and incorporated a customer forum where the company can gain insights about behaviors once customers land at specific destinations.

All are examples of collaborations that encompass in-person interactions, promotional campaigns, and logistics to get the right information to the right person at the point of need and on the device of that person's choice. Those tools also support innovation from unlikely sources and the design and delivery of unique products and services. When trust is nurtured and insights are openly shared among external partners, both the partner and the organization benefit from a stronger understanding of, and engagement with, members and customers. That's external partnership that goes well beyond sponsorship.

Sometimes an external partner may be a traditionally perceived competitor—if not for the same set of products or services, then certainly for mindshare and wallet share of a target audience. When two seemingly competitive organizations agree to participate in a joint discovery process to analyze key market trends and collaborate on a solution, the results benefit not only both organizations but the overall industry as well. Why would two competitive organizations collaborate? That's where co-opetition comes in.

Co-opetition, a model in which networks of stakeholders cooperate and compete to create maximum value, is one of the most important business concepts of recent years. Mobile and social technologies, by enabling connected relationships through information sharing as well as integrating and streamlining processes, have made it even more necessary for organizations to both cooperate and compete. In today's networked economy, co-opetition is a powerful means of identifying new market opportunities and developing strategy. Adam M. Brandenburger and Barry Nalebuff, professors at Harvard Business School and the Yale School of Management, respectively, expanded upon the concept in their book, Co-opetition. They argue that business is simultaneously both competition and cooperation. The success of most organizations is dependent on the success of others, yet they must compete to capture value created in the market and protect their own interests.

Given a common mission, vision, or enemy—think of unfair business legislation—it is in the best interests of both organizations to pool resources, insights, and industry or subject-matter expertise to collectively uncover new market opportunities. In the association industry, this model is particularly applicable to national, regional, and statewide organizations.

Heightened Insights and Intense Social Analytics

The final two pillars of change in the reinvention of the board are logically intertwined: heightened insights and intense social analytics. Given today's overabundance of digital interactions, it's become more challenging—yet more important—for organizations to capture and effectively use rich member or customer insights. The vast number of touch points highlights the demand for agility in meeting members' needs at specific points in time. They desperately need access to key pieces of information this afternoon, and by tomorrow the same information won't be nearly as vital or useful.

Analyzing and extrapolating patterns of behavior and cultivating an ability to respond quickly to changing needs aren't a low-level staff function. The board must provide the supporting environment, capacity building, and foresight in the value of information sharing with a broad base of constituents. Supportive leadership can reinforce learning by encouraging dialogue and debate and providing resources for reflection.

The board's stewardship will create an exponential increase in volume of member- or customer-centric data, and a certain intensity of analysis will be required to effectively process and make decisions. Cross-functional collaboration will enable the organization to gather, collate, gain insights from, and disseminate data that streams in from every member or customer interaction. Not every organization will be capable of creating or effectively using sophisticated data analytics, such as in the financial services and airline industries, where a massive amount of information is used daily to calculate pricing formulas. That's where creative business and revenue model partnerships with outside firms will create opportunities for visionary organizations to exchange data and constantly test alternative tactics to engage and influence the behavior of members or customers.

The fundamental barrier to any organization's ability to dramatically leverage social as an enabler of exceptional member engagement or customer experiences is the lack of organizational stewardship. Staff functions such as marketing, communication, or IT cannot be responsible for the vast number of ways members or customers interact with the organization. Boards and senior leaders must collaborate in adapting their organizations to be consistent with how members and customers behave. By cultivating connected relationships, boards can redefine the traditional organizational structure.

David Nour is CEO of The Nour Group, Inc. This article is adapted from his book Return on Impact—Leadership Strategies for the Age of Connected Relationships, published by ASAE's Association Management Press. Visit or email [email protected].