It is a new year, and we must redouble our efforts to help association boards become more.
For the rest of The Turbulent Twenties and the decades beyond, associations will need fit-for-purpose boards with the deep capabilities and unquestioned legitimacy required to make the toughest decisions before them, guide their organizations toward thrivability, and stand up for their successors’ futures. In 2023, it is crucial for board directors/officers, chief staff executives [CSEs], and other board contributors to focus their attention on setting a higher standard of stewardship, governing, and foresight [SGF].
The association community’s need for the strongest possible board performance is inarguable. The limitations and obstacles created by the orthodox beliefs we hold about boards, however, continue to make reaching that level unnecessarily difficult. To disrupt the powerful influence these orthodoxies exert, I advocate in this column that our community begin the immediate implementation of five ideas to help remake association boards for the better.
•Director credentialing—The traditional focus of our community’s board-related public education opportunities has been on presiding officers and CSEs. In The Turbulent Twenties, this approach is no longer sufficient. Instead, every current and emerging association board director must have on-demand access to SGF development experiences that deliver future-ready learning and provide a portable credential confirming their preparation for the rigors of 21st-century board service. The association community should capitalize on the momentum created by the global proliferation of certificates and designations for corporate directors to develop new offerings that meet its unique requirements and expand the pool of well-qualified directors.
•Equitable board composition—Association boards in the United States are long overdue to reflect the growing diversity of our nation. As I have previously written, both the moral and business cases for genuine board diversity mandate that associations eliminate the long-standing structural inequities deeply embedded within the board composition processes outlined in their governing documents. To ensure they can select directors from the most diverse and best-prepared candidates, associations need to end their dependence on competitive elections and implement equitable selection next practices that are inclusive and rigorous to create the solid foundation that is essential for capable and future-focused board performance.
•Public directors—Association board service is not a member benefit. While ongoing association involvement, long-term loyalty, and personal popularity are commendable attributes for potential directors, they do not necessarily predict success in that role. Indeed, directors/officers chosen for these reasons often end up doing more to reinforce a board’s commitment to orthodoxy instead of confronting it. To bring meaningful demographic and identity diversity, independent perspectives, and fresh SGF capacity to their boards, some associations have seated “public directors” drawn from beyond their membership boundaries. This next practice should be more widely adopted by associations throughout our community, including the possibility of seating public presiding officers who can work with CSEs to establish and meet high-performance standards for their boards.
•Continuous performance assessments—To become more, association boards must adhere to a consistent protocol of individual and collective assessment. Completing a once-a-year “smile sheet” and calling it board self-assessment mocks the idea of setting a higher standard for board performance. At a minimum, continuous performance assessments must include 1) setting clear board performance expectations, 2) full group and peer evaluations following each meeting, and 3) an annual full board assessment linked to both the performance expectations and the post-meeting assessments. In addition, associations should adopt the next practice of third-party assessments conducted by their SGF advisor and ensure that underperforming directors/officers receive coaching and development support.
•Board compensation—To continue pushing back on the detrimental influence of orthodoxy, associations must recognize that a board seat is a voluntary role, rather than a volunteer opportunity. For some potential directors, voluntary service on an association board is rendered impossible by the lack of employer financial support, personal financial flexibility, or both. To ensure more equitable board composition, attract public directors, and create an incentive for stronger performance under challenging conditions, associations should give serious consideration to providing compensation to directors and officers. With some associations, especially in the healthcare space, already offering a measure of compensation (beyond expense reimbursements) to defray the loss of income created by board-required workplace absences, this may well be the appropriate moment for the wider adoption of this next practice.
•It is a new year, and we must redouble our efforts to help association boards become more. Unfortunately, there is no single fix we can apply to repair the profound damage that our community’s orthodox beliefs still inflict on associations and their boards. If we can act decisively to solve well-known board problems through the adoption of these five and other SGF next practices, we can build more fit-for-purpose boards and put our community on the pathway toward a more promising future.
About The Author
Jeff De Cagna FRSA FASAE, executive advisor for Foresight First LLC in Reston, Virginia, is an association contrarian, foresight practitioner, governing designer, stakeholder and successor advocate, and stewardship catalyst. In August 2019, Jeff became the 32nd recipient of ASAE’s Academy of Leaders Award, the association’s highest individual honor given to consultants or industry partners in recognition of their support of ASAE and the association community.