Author’s Note: On Tuesday, December 6 at 2 pm EST, I will host a one-hour Zoom discussion session on “Exploring The Six Toughest Decisions Association Boards Must Make.” You can register for this free session here. I hope you will join your association community colleagues and me for what I expect will be a provocative conversation. Please bring your ideas and questions!
In Part I of this series, I presented the first three toughest decisions association boards must make. These decisions were framed first to focus the attention of boards throughout our community on the imperative to shift their orthodox thinking and action and become more as quickly as possible. In this Part II column, I propose three more decisions, once again in the form of questions, for directors, officers, and staff partners to examine as they wrestle with the kind of world they want to leave for their stakeholders and successors.
At a time of dangerously low levels of trust in academia, business, government, the media, and technology companies, it is critical for associations to assert themselves as essential 21st-century societal institutions that will work to advance the public good as a matter of purpose. In the discontinuous next, boards have a clear responsibility to direct their associations’ agency toward creating a positive-sum impact on the complex issues and wicked problems we face in this decade and beyond.
Three More Decisions
• What will we do to safeguard our stakeholders and successors from technological harm?—In the last 25+ years, there has been a significant evolution in the association community’s approach to emerging technologies as early trepidation and grudging acceptance have given way to widespread adoption and a deeper integration made urgent by the pandemic. When it comes to the expanding embrace of technology in both their associations and the broader world, however, boards face a fundamental dilemma: technology will be at the core of their organizations’ pursuit of long-term thrivability even as it remains an ongoing source of unintended negative consequences for stakeholders and successors.
Working through this dilemma requires boards to reject the orthodox belief that technology is neutral. The biased design and development of technology applications, the push to automate human contribution through the rapidly-growing use of AI-enabled tools, and the discriminatory implementation of surveillance technologies are all significant sources of human harm, especially for historically-marginalized communities. As part of their intentional learning, then, boards must strive to build an empathic understanding of technology’s detrimental effects on people throughout society. With this knowledge, boards and staff partners can explore how their associations will protect stakeholders and successors from technology-related bias, discrimination, and inequality in their personal and professional lives.
• What substantive commitments will we make to address the global climate emergency?—With the fourth year of The Turbulent Twenties about to begin, associations in every field of human endeavor are long overdue to make substantive commitments to help address the global climate emergency. Associations cannot solve the climate crisis on their own, but nor can organizations in our community wait any longer to convene, coordinate, and contribute to initiatives that will prepare our world for now-unavoidable climate impact and mitigate the more catastrophic effects that will occur in the 2030s and beyond.
Accepting and acting on their climate responsibilities is a direct test of legitimacy that association boards must not fail. Managing and reducing climate risk is a central concern of corporate governance, and association boards should follow suit by raising the priority and intensity level of their conversations in this area. The duty of foresight requires association boards to stand up for their successors’ futures, and there is no greater danger to long-term human well-being than the climate crisis. Once again, it is historically-marginalized communities that are enduring a disproportionate level of suffering, which challenges association boards to back up their public expressions of support for diversity, equity, and inclusion with meaningful action.
• What will we do to limit the damaging impact of ideological division on our association?—Associations can expand their influence and fulfill their potential as 21st-century societal institutions through consistent and constructive work to address the global climate emergency, reduce human inequality, minimize technological harm, and other vital issues affecting their stakeholders and successors. To realize this mutually-beneficial opportunity, however, association boards also must act to ensure that ideologically-motivated opinions do not interfere with the evidence-based and purposeful application of organizational capabilities and resources.
In my April 2021 The Duty of Foresight column, I wrote that association boards “must categorically reject the toxic influence of ideological division in every phase of their associations’ activities and especially in their own critical work of stewardship, governing, and foresight.” Nearly two years later, ideological extremism continues to be a profound threat to the stability of both associations and the country. Boards can act to limit extremism’s damaging impact by implementing more equitable and inclusive board composition processes and by focusing their attention on becoming fit for purpose to introduce greater discipline and trusted collaboration into their work.
Making the Seventh Decision
There is a “seventh decision” that nominating committees, chief staff executives, and other participants involved in the board selection process will need to make repeatedly in the years ahead: whom shall we seat on the association’s board? But before these contributors can undertake the demanding task of composing boards capable of becoming more, every current/future association director and officer will need to answer the foundational question at the heart of this crucial choice: why am I one of the best-prepared people to help make these six and many more tough decisions? Providing a clear, compelling, and future-ready response to this inquiry must be a non-negotiable requirement for everyone pursuing association board service in The Turbulent Twenties and beyond.
I will keep the topic of this year’s final column a surprise for now, but I can share that it will be posted during the first full week of December. To my fellow Americans at home and around the world, please accept my best wishes for a Happy Thanksgiving holiday. 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.