5 Tips for Implementing a Governance Change

chalkboard arrows January 4, 2016 By: Gretchen Couraud, CAE

A governance change can streamline an association's processes and make it more agile. But it requires close engagement with members and volunteers at every step. The CEO of one association that made it happen shares her experience.

In 2015 the National Association of College and University Food Services completed a governance reorganization. NACUFS transformed its governance model from a constituent-representative model with two governing layers (a national board of directors with regional and national conference representatives, and regional councils with elected officers) to a strategic governing board of trustees, selected based upon competencies, elected by slate. The regional councils were maintained but now report directly to the board of trustees. Membership voted overwhelmingly in support of the bylaws revision following a two-year process which focused on engaging members in dialogue.

Below are five recommendations applicable to any governance reorganization, based on our experience.

1. Develop a clear vision for change and why change is needed. At the outset we stressed that our goal was to operate as a unified organization to become more strategic, enhance our value proposition, support our next generation of leaders, and address issues of risk. Our goal was to transition from operating as seven separate parts (national plus six regions) to one systemic organization providing excellent member value. We needed to create efficiencies while remaining innovative and responsive to members. We promoted these changes through a tagline of "ONE NACUFS," stressing the positive outcomes to strengthen the organization. This was essential to building support and maintaining focus on why change was needed and how it would benefit the members.

2. Communicate a clear process and timeline, and stick to it. We followed an eight-step process designed by our consultant, Michael Gallery, FASAE, CAE, president of OPIS, LLC. The process put the board of trustees in charge and accountable for all final decisions. But it also entailed appointing a work group of volunteers to conduct the work and make recommendations to the board for their approval. The work group established performance requirements for a revised governance model and identified gaps between the desired performance requirements and the current structure. They then proposed a new structure to close the gaps. Once the new structure was approved by the board, a bylaws committee of volunteers, supported by legal counsel and a professional parliamentarian, proposed a new set of bylaws to the board for consideration. The bylaws were approved by the board of trustees then voted upon by the full membership.

Because the process was led by volunteers and approved by the board of trustees each step of the way, it gained credibility, enthusiasm, and support in the eyes of the membership. Staff was involved throughout in strategy development and communications. But volunteers led the entire initiative, which was key to our success.

3. Understand your organization's culture and honor the past while focusing on the future. NACUFS is a very strong association with a proud history of volunteer leadership and regional autonomy. Volunteers built the organization nearly 60 years ago and managed the association successfully for many years. Likewise, each region has a unique culture and network. Members often find their home in the region first. Members wanted assurances that they would still be leading the organization and that the regions would continue to play key roles.  

We ultimately convinced members that the board of trustees would be governing the association; staff would manage the association; and volunteers would continue to play key roles leading in the regions and serving on committees and task forces to address member needs. This entailed honoring the past and recognizing successes of past leadership, while focusing on the future and the time limits of the next generation of leaders. We also maintained the regional councils and included regional directors on the nominating committee to ensure they played a role in governance.

4. Communicate, communicate, communicate! Don't underestimate the amount of time required to communicate the changes you've made—this process took two years for us to complete. We devoted the first year to introducing the process, raising awareness of the issues and the necessity and benefits of change. We developed a communications plan that included a number of vehicles such as small group meetings at regional and national conferences, webinars, blogs, magazine articles, and individual phone calls from leadership to our voting delegates.

But most members did not begin to engage until our annual meeting, at which point we held a nonbinding conceptual vote in support of the draft governance model. That raised significant awareness and people began to pay attention, ask questions, and debate. We devoted the second year to building support and trust, as well as educating the majority of members who weren't engaged the first year; these members would ultimately vote on the bylaws. Some issues that originally appeared small, such as nomenclature around volunteer and staff titles, became key issues tied to culture and opportunities for discussion and compromise.

5. Build a solid case for support. NACUFS conducted legal, financial, and organizational audits prior to initiating this process. The findings demonstrated that there were legal, financial, and brand risks to operating as seven separate parts. They also demonstrated that tremendous opportunities existed to build business systems to support our regions and members through enhanced data collection and systems. Our case for support included factual data as well as messaging to respect culture and history. We articulated how a strategic governing board could address major issues facing the collegiate food services profession in years ahead, such as succession planning, financial pressures on college campuses, and conveying the value of food service professionals to the educational community.

Associations have significant competition in today's world. Members ask us to do more with less. Volunteers are passionate about involvement. Boards are expected to govern at a higher level of competency due to changes in the legal, financial, and political landscapes. Professional association staffs are now managing associations. This means that effective governance is a critical factor for successful associations, and it deserves serious time and attention to create modern governance structures.

Gretchen Couraud, CAE

Gretchen M. Couraud, CFRE, CAE, is CEO of the National Association of College and University Food Services. She has 30 years of experience in association, nonprofit, and chamber of commerce experience. Her experience is focused on organizational management, fund development, governance, and advocacy.