As association decision-makers continue to navigate this decade’s next 1,000 days and seek the opportunity for their organizations to thrive, they will need to make a series of six tough decisions to anticipate and adapt to the unforgiving conditions ahead. In this column, I propose the first three decisions in the form of questions on which directors, officers, and staff partners should reflect individually, and then discuss with candor in their collective stewardship groups.
To be clear, none of these three decisions (nor the three I will share in Part II in November) will be a panacea for addressing the wicked problems facing the association community, its organizations, or their stakeholders and successors. Instead, they are offered as direct and immediate challenges to boards to focus their attention on the future and begin nurturing the habits of mind required to fulfill their stewardship responsibilities.
The First Three Decisions
•When will we stop surrendering our agency to the detrimental influence of orthodox beliefs?—During the worst of the pandemic lockdown in 2020, when the emergence of the “discontinuous next” left associations with limited options, many directors, officers, and staff were overwhelmed by the rapid and profound loss of control. Nevertheless, most senior decision-makers were able to persevere and direct their agency toward the imperative of guiding their organizations through a period of maximum danger. As the pandemic has shifted into its current phase, however, the desire to “return to normal” has led many boards to make a hard turn back toward pre-pandemic complacency.
Orthodox beliefs, the deep-seated assumptions we make about how the world works, are limiting ways of thinking and major barriers to learning. Orthodoxy exerts an invisible yet insidious influence on every aspect of how associations function and is a primary source of complacency. Throughout the pandemic’s darkest days, boards and their staff partners had no choice but to confront their orthodox beliefs, but now the complacency of normal is reinforcing orthodoxy’s damaging impact on board conversations and decision-making. It is time for association boards to reclaim their agency by openly challenging orthodoxy—and thinking and acting beyond it—in every aspect of their increasingly difficult work.
•When will we choose to care more about our successors than ourselves?—The silent and enduring commitment to orthodoxy enables board risk aversion, which in turn, leads to more short-term thinking. Short-termism—regarded by many as the greatest threat facing humanity—also may be the most acute hazard to the future thrivability of associations, current stakeholders, and especially long-term successors, whose voices are never heard in today’s board conversations.
Whenever association boards consider “the future” of their organizations today, it is essential that they ask to whom those myriad plausible futures belong. They certainly do not belong to long-departed predecessors, who are due a measure of gratitude for their contributions, but not unquestioned adherence to outmoded beliefs. And, if boards are honest with themselves, they will acknowledge that the futures under discussion today do not belong to them either. Instead, they will embrace their clear moral obligation to stand up for their successors’ futures, and pursue their decision-making accordingly.
•What significant sacrifices will we make today for the benefit of our successors?—Short-termism, along with the inherently conservative and deficit-centric thinking prevalent in most non-profit organizations, can move boards to make decisions that maximize present-day advantage without any substantive examination of the potential long-term negative consequences of those choices for successors.
Once again, in the absence of advocates for their interests, the influence of successors’ concerns on today’s board decision-making is virtually non-existent. As a result, boards have been able to turn “the future” into something of a dumping ground for the issues, questions, and problems they regard as too complex, too controversial, or too sensitive to address today. As they strive to become fit for purpose, however, association boards must replace this decades-long practice of deferring risk to future humans who have no say in the matter with a thoughtful exploration of the most meaningful sacrifices their organizations will make starting now to reduce the risk exposure and impact their successors will inherit in the years ahead.
As mentioned above, Part II of this series will share three more tough decisions for association boards and will be posted before the Thanksgiving Day holiday in the United States. Until then, thank you for reading, and please stay well.
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.