Change Champions at Beta Theta Pi

One hundred seventy years of tradition is a big weight to carry during a governance change effort. Rather than bow to the pressure, the leaders of Beta Theta Pi recruited volunteer champions to lead the charge for change. Here’s how they did it, as well as advice on how your association can capitalize on its own change champions.

Anyone who has spent much time as a player in the notoriously rough-and-tumble game of change knows it's not for the faint hearted. Many of you will readily relate to the following fictional (but reality-based) scenario:

Emily was more than disappointed; she was devastated. That morning's board meeting was easily her worst experience in the two years she'd been president and CEO of IAME, an international association dedicated to promoting music education in the primary grades. She'd gone into the board meeting confident that the vote to take some relatively low-cost steps to strengthen IAME governance would be overwhelmingly positive, if not unanimous. But she couldn't have been more wrong.

She'd been meticulous in doing the spadework leading up to the final vote. Her executive committee had given her the go ahead to find a highly qualified consultant to study the current governance structure and process and make practical recommendations for improvement. She and her top lieutenants had closely overseen the consultant's work, shaping the recommendations in his report to the board. And they'd made sure that the recommendations were practical and not overly ambitious: to take a more systematic approach to filling board vacancies with qualified candidates; to create five new seats on the board for at-large members outside the profession; and to uncouple board members, slowly and surely, from a number of nongoverning, technical advisory committees (such as conference-program planning).

But the board meeting had been a disaster. The consultant was only two minutes into presenting his recommendations when a reasonably progressive board member who Emily had assumed would support carefully conceived change observed: "Things have been going pretty well for us. We're in the black. Our membership is growing again. We must be doing something right. As they say, 'If it ain't broke, why fix it?'" And it went downhill from there. After two hours of often hostile and nitpicking questioning, the board decided to table the recommendations, and it was obvious they wouldn't be on the table again anytime soon.

Does this sad story sound familiar? It should, if you've been in the change game for long. Significant change of any kind in any organization, not just in association governance, tends to be difficult under the best of circumstances. In fact, experience has taught that consciously planned and managed large-scale change is the exception to the rule in human affairs.

Perhaps the most formidable enemy of change we've encountered over the years is intense emotional attachment to the way things are and have been, which is a common characteristic of organizations that have been around for a while. This attachment likely has to do with both ego and comfort. Volunteers who successfully climbed the "volunteer career ladder," have, by definition, accomplished results widely recognized as important in their organization. Such success breeds normal ego satisfaction, which fosters an emotional commitment to established structures and processes.

We are not using "ego" in a pejorative sense, by the way. High-achieving people tend to have robust egos, and ego satisfaction can be a powerful force for good. Our only point is that such attachment to established structure and processes can be an important pothole on the road to change.

Another common barrier is the siren song of comfort and safety. In our experience, familiarity, far from breeding the proverbial contempt, tends to foster a feeling of safety and comfort. So when significant change is on the table, it's not uncommon to encounter—at least at first blush—a negative gut reaction. And the older an organization is, the more venerable its traditions are likely to be, and the larger the cadre of those paying allegiance to the past will likely be.

Beating the Odds at Beta Theta Pi

Beta Theta Pi, an international social fraternity headquartered in Oxford, Ohio, is a large, complex nonprofit corporation, with more than 7,000 collegiate members on 120 campuses across North America, around 128,000 alumni members, a $5 million operating budget (including the Beta Theta Pi Foundation), more than 1,100 actively engaged volunteers, and 29 headquarters staff. If there ever was a volunteer-driven association, it's Beta Theta Pi. Witness the fact that the official chief executive officer of this 171-year-old organization is a volunteer, the general secretary, who supervises the highest-ranking full-time professional staff member, the administrative secretary.

In January 2009, the Beta Theta Pi Board of Trustees made two critical decisions that have transformed the board's leadership over the past two years:

  1. It adopted a "Board Governing Mission" that lays out the board's primary governing functions and responsibilities.
  2. It put in place a structure of four board governing committees to assist the trustees in accomplishing their detailed governing work.

So how did we beat the formidable odds at Beta Theta Pi and actually accomplish significant governance change? In a nutshell, we transformed nine seasoned Beta volunteers into "change champions," who, as part of what we called the High-Impact Governing Initiative Steering Committee, over a period of six months fashioned the recommended mission and structure. Fueled by powerful feelings of ownership, these change champions took the lead—visibly and passionately—in convincing their peers on the Beta Theta Pi Board of Trustees to adopt the Board Governing Mission and committee structure and actively back their implementation.

The following four keys were critical to turning volunteers into effective change champions at Beta Theta Pi:

  1. We recruited the right volunteers to become our change champions.
  2. We fostered powerful feelings of ownership through participation in a well-designed structure and process.
  3. We paved the way by building full understanding among the Board of Trustees early in the process.
  4. We avoided overloading the board and choking it on too much change at one time.

Getting the Right Volunteers

Not just anyone can serve as an effective champion for significant change. The Beta Board of Trustees went for the gusto in recruiting a cast of heavy hitters to serve on the Steering Committee, and the extraordinary composition of this nine-member body clearly signaled to the wider fraternity the board's firm commitment to major change.

Four Board of Trustees members on the committee included the fraternity's two highest-ranking volunteers: the president (and chair of the board) and the general secretary (the volunteer CEO). Three Beta Theta Pi Foundation representatives included the foundation board chair. Two former general secretaries rounded out the Steering Committee, bringing their unique perspectives to the mix.

The diverse membership of the Steering Committee was a tremendous asset to the High-Impact Governing Initiative, lending not only considerable knowledge and expertise but also credibility to the change effort. It would have been difficult to assemble a body richer in professional experience, including corporate executive management, medicine, law, financial and consulting services, and higher-education administration.

The chair of the High-Impact Governing Initiative Steering Committee was a natural choice to play the leading role in the two-phased Beta governance improvement effort. First, as a long-tenured Beta Theta Pi trustee with years of successful volunteer involvement in the fraternity, and a successful corporate CEO to boot, he commanded the respect of his fraternity brothers. No one could question his passionate commitment to Beta Theta Pi, nor could he by any stretch of the imagination be seen as a "young turk" attacking the establishment. But his legitimacy had to do with more than earning his spurs as a long-time volunteer in Beta affairs. He had been the most vocal proponent on the Board of Trustees for modernizing the board's governing role, structures, and processes to meet the challenges of a changing world. His colleagues on the board were well aware that he was highly knowledgeable about developments in the field of nonprofit governance.

Building Ownership

Ownership is one of the most powerful forces in the change game. Effective champions for significant change, in our experience, are invariably passionate owners of the change—the polar opposite of an audience for someone else's work. Experience has taught us that ownership is best fostered through involvement in a well-designed process that actively engages volunteers in shaping changes they are being asked to champion.

In this regard, the Beta Theta Pi Board of Trustees made sure the volunteers who agreed to serve on the Steering Committee were involved in a well-defined, methodical process that ensured their strong ownership of the recommendations they would ultimately present to the full board. For example, the Steering Committee began by reaching explicit agreement on a framework within which to fashion its recommendations, consisting of a set of "design guidelines" (for example, a detailed definition of what "high-impact governing" means and the requirement to "preserve the key attributes of the Beta culture" in fashioning recommendations).

The second step the committee took was to reach consensus on the preeminent governance issues to be addressed in the action report (for example, the absence of a "governing mission" laying out the board's primary governing responsibilities and detailed governing functions). And over the course of several teleconferences and an in-person, full-day work session, Steering Committee members were afforded ample opportunity to shape their recommendations to the board. They were truly creators and owners, as far from a passive audience as possible.

Paving the Way With the Board

The full Beta Board of Trustees would ultimately be acting on the recommendations of the change champions serving on the Steering Committee, and so committee members agreed that it would be a serious mistake to hold off detailed board involvement in the High-Impact Governing Initiative to the very end, when the action report would be presented. Early, meaningful involvement would be critical to the effort's ultimate success.

Therefore, a daylong work session of the full board, hosted by the Steering Committee, was a key milestone early in the process. Efforts focused on three specific objectives: to familiarize all trustees with developments in the evolving field of nonprofit governance that the Steering Committee would be taking into consideration in fashioning its recommendations, to provide trustees with an opportunity to review and comment on the governance issues the Steering Committee had identified and the design guidelines being followed, and to involve trustees via breakout groups in brainstorming various aspects of the board's governing work.

Avoiding Overload

Early in the Steering Committee effort it was anticipated that the committee would ultimately recommend action to the Board of Trustees on two fronts: strengthening the board's governing capacity and refining the fraternity's executive structure. Steering Committee members soon realized, however, that if they took on too many important "change chunks" in the governing sphere at once, the Board of Trustees might very well choke, jeopardizing the whole effort. They also recognized that transforming the board into a higher-impact governing body would provide the essential foundation for other governance enhancements, which could be tackled over time in a phased approach. So the committee decided to ask for action only on the Board Governing Mission and new committee structure in January 2009.

The Beta ROI

Two years later, the board's governing committees have been firmly established and are fully functioning. Beta Theta Pi trustees and executive team members overwhelmingly agree that the fraternity has realized a powerful return on its investment of time and money in these governing enhancements. The ROI includes:

  • More effective trustee decision making and more efficient use of trustee time, as a result of thorough committee preparation for board meetings
  • Closer trustee attention to the complex, high-stakes strategic issues facing Beta Theta Pi
  • Greater trustee ownership of governing decisions and judgments as a result of participation in committee deliberations
  • A much more engaged board that provides its members with a deeply satisfying governing experience.

In large measure because of meticulous, detailed staff implementation planning, the new structure was put in place without any major glitches. Only two problems were encountered that merit mention: coming up with enough high-level staff time to support the new committees and lack of clear direction on the part of the committee responsible for stakeholder relations. As staff have gained their "sea legs," the time required to support committee deliberations has become more manageable. The stakeholder relations committee has been a tougher nut to crack, largely because its charge was vaguer to begin with than those of the other committees. However, the committee has with considerable effort mapped out a productive role in the external relations area and is now moving forward.

As this is being written, the Board of Trustees is actively involved in Beta Theta Pi's phase-three governance improvement effort, focusing on refinement of the executive structure. The change train at Beta Theta Pi is still traveling down the track.

Sidebar: 4 Lessons From the Change Champions

You can apply the lessons we learned in transforming governance at Beta Theta Pi to accomplish significant change of any kind in your association:

  1. Recruit a diverse and influential cadre of change champions to spearhead your change effort, particularly to sell change recommendations to their peers.
  2. Put in place a well-designed structure and process for meaningful involvement as the primary means of turning your change champions into true owners of the change they will be recommending.
  3. Program into your change process early involvement of the ultimate decision makers who will say "yea" or "nay" on particular change recommendations, whether they are your board or your executive team.
  4. Don't take on more change than your association can handle at any given time. It's better to start with half a loaf than choke your decision makers on overly ambitious proposals and lose the whole change game.

Tom Purinton is president, David Schmidt is general secretary, Charlie Warner is immediate past general secretary, Martin Haskell is a former trustee, and Jud Horras is administrative secretary of Beta Theta Pi. Doug Eadie is president and CEO of Doug Eadie & Company, Inc. Emails: [email protected], [email protected]