Robbie Baxter is the founder of Peninsula Strategies, based in in Menlo Park, California, and author of The Membership Economy.
Association leaders must build board relationships that support the long-term health of the organization. But missteps can easily happen. Here are five common alignment issues and how to fix them.
After a recent speech, I was chatting with a student member working toward her doctorate. She told me that she felt her professional association wasn’t really for her. Her area of interest combined two specialties, and the organization required her to choose one. She didn’t know where to go and felt unwelcome in either group, partly because of her specialty and partly because none of the leaders looked approachable. Pale, male, and stale—those were her words.
I brought it up later to the association’s executive director, and she explained that the board of directors was reluctant to change the affinity structure because professional awards and board seats were tied to that structure. Many people had worked their whole careers within that framework and shouldn't be denied the spoils, she said.
As an outsider, I was surprised to hear this. Clearly, the mission of the organization was to maintain the health and integrity of the profession by staying on the cutting edge. The young student was in a prestigious academic program and had received numerous accolades; however, she was leaning toward joining a newer and lesser-known association.
The executive director also knew that the structure of the organization was inconsistent with its mission. She knew that if tomorrow’s leaders didn’t join, the association’s prestige and pull in the industry would wane. This association’s story is a prime example of a board and organizational alignment being out of step, a challenge that many associations face. Here are five common issues that come between the two, and how to fix them:
Many boards are led by longtime members who have worked their way through various volunteer roles on a steady path toward a board position. Once there, the focus is more on what they get—status, influence, and the ability to represent and support peers and friends. Boards don’t always have clearly defined roles and responsibilities, which results in board members overstepping into staff-controlled areas or being unwilling to participate in difficult decisions.
Opportunity: Association leaders and staff must work together to develop criteria for board roles since both parties have an incentive to attract motivated volunteers. A good model to use is corporate boards, which define five-year goals, determine needs, and actively recruit and groom candidates based on those needs.
Board members may not meet frequently, and they can’t dig into issues quickly, which slows decision making. This issue is compounded when there are too many board members and calls for quorums to make decisions. Also, the turnover of board chairs might be too frequent, making it harder to develop strong working relationships.
Opportunity: Short of changing governance bylaws, you can invite specific board members to participate informally in key initiatives, so that they become catalysts for change and motivate their colleagues to act.
A good question to ask the board: What kind of governance do we need to become the organization of the future?
Some board directors have special interests that are inconsistent with the mission of the organization. These interests might be explicitly proscribed by the bylaws, or they might be implicit, focusing on the needs of a small, likeminded group. Association leaders should work with the board to define responsibilities and establish a code of ethics.
Opportunity: In the long term, organizations can work to change the bylaws and culture of their board, pushing for greater board diversity. In the short term, association leaders can bring in advisory groups of underrepresented members and nonmembers to build a greater understanding of membership. After all, the health of the organization depends on building and nurturing a strong pipeline of new members.
Typically, association board members get little to no training before joining the group. Part of the reason can be that boards are elected by other members and aren’t subject to training rules, or it may be an issue of tradition and habit.
Opportunity: Provide an optional training or invite board chairs to strategy sessions. When nominating new board members, focus on skills needed to achieve five-year plans. A good question to ask the board: What kind of governance do we need to become the organization of the future?
Is your mission statement written down but not used as a guiding principle? This can lead to each board member having their own criteria for prioritizing objectives. Many objectives are worthy, but there aren’t enough resources to achieve them all. As a result, the organization may choose to focus on initiatives that the most powerful board member wants, rather than the objectives most likely to support the mission. Or the organization may try to do too many things and ends up doing nothing well.
Opportunity: Put the mission and the members of the future at the center. Open board meetings with an exercise or presentation about what the organization is doing around the mission. The more people focus on the higher objective of the organization, the more likely they are to align their efforts.
Membership and governance are more connected than you might think. And organizations that aren’t all pulling in the same direction—toward the same vision of serving today’s and tomorrow’s members—will be in danger.