Monday, July 2, 2012

Why are competency-based association boards an anomaly?

Or, rather than an anomaly, is it just associations I've experienced?

The other day I was reading a USA Today story about the “troubles” at the top of U.S. public flagship universities.

It caught my attention – not because I graduated from one nor because I spent 10 years working at colleges and universities – but because it focused on the governance of those universities.

The article and quoted research focused on the dysfunctional boards, most of whom are filled with political appointees.

A couple of key points from the story:

  • University of Kentucky professor John Thelin, author of A History of American Higher Education, says the University of Virginia controversy raises anew his concerns about whether boards of trustees at public universities, who typically are political appointees and often come from the corporate world, should be making decisions about a system whose inner workings they may not grasp. "We give so much ultimate power to our boards of trustees, but we have no assurance that they really know the enterprise they're overseeing," he says.
  • University of Virginia Business School Dean Carl Zeithaml, who had been tapped to be interim president, but stepped aside pending Tuesday's vote, said Friday the board might be more effective with fewer political appointees and more experts in relevant fields. He also urged a larger role for faculty and staff.
The piece surfaced one of the key points in Race for Relevance, a thought-provoking book by Harrison Coerver and Mary Byers, CAE.

Their first radical change for associations (and nonprofits) involved “overhauling the size and composition of the board of directors.”

They recommended the board be “based on competency, not geography, special interests or who you know.”

Kent Anderson posted this related blog a week ago. Challenged Association — Remaining Relevant Requires More Than Cosmetic Change. It’s worth reading.

My 33+ years experience in association management and as a volunteer on nonprofit boards suggests that associations – like universities – often suffer from boards chosen on something other than the skills and competence the association needs. Instead, most are composed of “representatives” that state associations or chapters place on the national associations board.

I’ve met some wonderful people and great leaders in boards using this format. But, sometimes, their leadership skills didn’t match what the association needed at the time.

In the end, the association suffered.

If the desired goal is a board filled with leaders who possess critical skills, then the challenge for association professionals is to find a governance system that makes it happen.


  1. There is no question that given the challenging environment confronting most associations, a poorly composed board will be a drag on the organization's performance. Would we hire staff the same way we compose boards? Would we promote staff the same way we advance directors to positions of authority? I think not.

  2. Thanks Harrison.

    Good points.

    Too often we association professionals are put in the position of "accepting" who comes our way as a board member. And, as you note, board development can consume a lot of staff time.


  3. Like this thinking that challenges all too common mindset regarding filling board positions. Associations and nonprofits must accept responsibility for placing priority emphasis on not only board development but on ensuring the right people are being brought on board to start with. Sometimes no is the best answer for both parties when a board prospect is being considered.

  4. Thanks Hardy.

    Hard for many people and organizations to change ... especially how boards are selected.