Jeff De Cagna

Executive Advisor, Foresight First LLC

Nov 14, 2018
Published on: Association Adviser
2 min read

This is the third in a three-part series exploring the burdens that are (and are not) integral to board high performance. (Please read Part 1 and Part 2.) In this final part of the series, I will examine how today’s association boards continue to carry a burden created by their predecessors and explore what today’s boards must do to eliminate that burden for their successors.

The Burden of Governing Debt

For decades, far too many association boards have opted to preserve the past at the expense of the future, practice politics instead of inclusion and prioritize operations over innovation. The persistent weakening of legacy governing approaches under the unforgiving conditions of intensifying societal transformation is mostly to blame for this situation, but the scores of directors who preceded today’s boards cannot escape all responsibility for creating the burden of “governing debt” that has been passed on unabated to their successors.

Governing debt is the accrued constraints, disadvantages and obstacles associations encounter due to the failure of their boards over time to prepare for the future. Some governing debt takes a tangible form, including outdated policies, processes and structures that place artificial and harmful limitations on the ability of associations to adapt to disruptive shifts in the broader environment. As an intangible element of the context in which all associations operate, governing debt reinforces the influence and impact of orthodoxy, feeds inertia and undermines the future focus of board decision-making. In addition to the indirect cost of missed opportunities, by severely slowing the pace of investment in building essential capabilities including the implementation of powerful technologies, governing debt has made building the long-term thrivability of associations both far more complicated and much more expensive.

Eliminating Governing Debt for Successors

Today’s association boards must carry the burden of governing debt because a long line of predecessors chose to defer various difficult, possibly unpopular, and yet vital decisions that could have strengthened their organizations for the future. Many of those directors were unable to recognize and appreciate the unintended consequences of their inaction at the time because they operated within governing systems that were not designed to value foresight. While this may explain the breakdown of past stewardship, it should not excuse it. Instead, it must serve as a cautionary note to current directors who cannot credibly rationalize the continued deferral of hard choices by pleading ignorance of the profound and potentially transformative implications of the emerging challenges their associations and stakeholders are already confronting.

To begin eliminating governing debt for their successors, today’s boards can begin to make sense and make meaning around its deeper impact by asking three questions:

  • What constraints, disadvantages and obstacles is our association encountering today because our predecessors failed to prepare our association for the future?
  • What constraints, disadvantages and obstacles will our successors inherit from us because we are deferring critical decisions about how to prepare our association for the future?
  • What difficult decisions are we prepared to make today that will benefit our successors and stakeholders more than they benefit us?

These questions offer a simple framework for pursuing the difficult yet crucial conversations that all association boards must have about making a genuine commitment to stewardship, governing and foresight as they, their organizations and their stakeholders grapple with growing adversity in the years ahead.

Reflecting on the Board’s Burdens

The core purpose of this series is to remind all governing contributors that board service is a serious commitment that cannot be made lightly. Associations demand too little from their boards, and expect too much from their chief staff executives who fill the void when boards underperform. It is imperative that all association boards strengthen their performance by letting go of unnecessary burdens, accepting their essential burdens and concentrating on how they can act to retire the governing debt that will otherwise undercut their successors and irrevocably damage their associations.

Next Column in January 2019

After taking next month off, The Duty of Foresight column will return in January 2019 with Part I of a new two-part series, “Future Ready, Not Future Proof,” in which I will share foundational principles for building a future-ready association.

About The Author

Jeff De Cagna, FRSA, FASAE is executive advisor for Foresight First LLC in Reston, Virginia and a respected contrarian thinker on the future of associating and associations. Jeff advises and serves on association and non-profit boards, and he has pursued executive development in both the work of governing (BoardSource and Harvard Business School) and the work of foresight (Institute for the Future and Oxford University). He is the author of the new eBook, Foresight is The Future of Governing: Building Thrivable Boards, Stakeholders and Systems for the 21st Century, produced in collaboration with Association Adviser, a Naylor publication.

Jeff can be reached through online chat, on Facebook or on Twitter @dutyofforesight.


This is the second in a three-part series I will post in the coming months exploring the burdens that are (and are not) integral to board high performance. (Please read Part 1.) In Part 2, I will explore the essential burdens of board service and discuss how all contributors can work together to create a supportive context within which they share these burdens for the benefit of their associations, stakeholders and systems.

Three Essential Burdens of Board Service

When association boards agree to let go of the orthodox and counterproductive burdens of tradition, representation and implementation discussed in Part 1, they can focus instead on embracing the three essential burdens of board service:

The burden of stewardship

Stewardship is the shared commitment to leave the system better than how we found it because the system belongs to all stakeholders. Boards agree to carry the primary burden of stewardship on behalf of their stakeholders and fulfill the serious responsibility of guiding those systems into an increasingly complex and uncertain future. The burden of stewardship requires every director to understand that they are only temporary holders of a decision-making role who must set aside personal considerations and work with other directors to adopt a holistic view of how to build thrivable systems for the benefit of current and future stakeholders.

The burden of governing

In my new eBook, Foresight is The Future of Governing: Building Thrivable Boards, Stakeholders and Systems for the 21st Century, I define governing as “an intentional and dynamic process for enabling the coherence, capability and continuity of the system.” The orthodox view of the burden of governing encourages boards to focus on long-standing priorities, including financial oversight, legal compliance and policymaking. While such functions remain necessary, the true burden of governing today lies not in association boards performing traditional activities that can be handled by other means but in their sustained effort to pursue the essential outcomes of governing (as described in the definition above) and make progress in fulfilling their stewardship responsibility to stakeholders.

The burden of foresight

The transformation of our society is well underway. It is already creating significant disruption across many industries and professions and, soon enough, it will envelop every field of human endeavor and experience. Associations are not ready for the future and boards must carry the burden of foresight that is critical to both stewardship and governing. This column is not called “The Duty of Foresight” by accident. Association boards have a sacrosanct obligation to learn with the future and to use what they learn to anticipate and prepare their associations, stakeholders and systems for a full range of plausible futures, especially the unfavorable and unthinkable futures that may force the fundamental and involuntary reinvention of what today’s boards and their predecessors have built over many decades.

To deal effectively with the essential burdens of stewardship, governing and foresight, directors will need to marshal their attention, emotional and energy resources. All three of these burdens will test the capacity of boards to handle ambiguity, complexity and uncertainty, feel empathy, humility and vulnerability and nurture collaboration, curiosity and imagination in their work. While association boards voluntarily accept the responsibility to carry these burdens, they should not carry them alone.

Sharing the Burdens

Creating a supportive partnership involving boards, chief staff executives and their teams, as well as other governing contributors, such as committees/task forces and external advisors, has never been more crucial. In most associations, boards are the primary stewards but all stakeholders can make meaningful contributions to stewardship if boards create a shared sense of responsibility that inspires action. Boards can make it simpler for all governing contributors to provide more helpful advice and guidance by articulating governing intent. As part of a consistent practice of foresight, associations can organize foresight networks, composed of both internal and external stakeholders, to accelerate learning and infuse fresh insights into the board’s process of learning with the future. By implementing these and other next practices, boards can carry their burdens while making them less burdensome.

Next Month

In Part 3 of this series, I will examine how today’s association boards continue to carry a burden created by their predecessors and explore what today’s boards must do to eliminate that burden for their successors.

About The Author

Jeff De Cagna, FRSA, FASAE is executive advisor for Foresight First LLC in Reston, Virginia and a respected contrarian thinker on the future of associating and associations. Jeff advises and serves on association and non-profit boards, and he has pursued executive development in both the work of governing (BoardSource and Harvard Business School) and the work of foresight (Institute for the Future and Oxford University). He is the author of the new eBook, Foresight is The Future of Governing: Building Thrivable Boards, Stakeholders and Systems for the 21st Century, produced in collaboration with Association Adviser, a Naylor publication.

Jeff can be reached through online chat, on Facebook or on Twitter @dutyofforesight.