Monday, January 21, 2013

Quality of Board Governance: What’s an Association Exec to Do?

An association CEO’s call the other day asking for “governance models” got me to thinking:
  • The lack of influence on the quality of my board of directors represented one of my frustrations as an association CEO.
Since the boards of most of the associations my AMC managed were representational in nature (e.g., the chapters or state associations selected “their” members to serve on “our” board), the national association “accepted” whomever the local (chapter or state association) “sent” to be on the national board.

While I’ve worked for associations with this model for more than 35 years, I grew to “live with it” but I also came to resent it. My frustration came from watching associations struggle because of “weak boards” and not being able to “correct it.” And so much potential seemed to “struggle” because of a mediocre board. 

Is There a Better Way?

Perhaps that is why the “competency-based” board philosophy Harrison Coerver and Mary Byers, CAE, espouse in Race for Relevance resonates with me so much.

The idea that the national association can elect or select board members based on the skills the organization needs and the expertise the candidate possesses makes great sense.

And, that is what came to me the other day while visiting with national association professionals asking me for “models” for board structure. They were looking for templates they could share with their board.

I called Harrison. He didn’t have any models handy. But, he again reinforced the value of a competency-based board of directors. I Googled Bob Harris and found a paper  on six “philosophical models” for board governance.

No Perfect Models

The bottom line appears to be that there are no “perfect” models. Most associations have created hybrid structures that “fit” their organization ... even though a different model may enhance results of board work

Sometimes I feel “modifying” association governance represents the “third rail” of association management. As such, many CEOs are not willing to challenge their boards to be better or to consider changes in size, in board membership or in “how we do things.” 

So, what do you think? Is governance the third rail of association management? If so, how do we as association professionals initiate change that help our organizations improve and/or meet the rapid changing issues we face?

Additional Readings  

If this topic interests you, here are three additional related sources that may be of interest:


  1. There are no "perfect" models by definition because all models are flawed representations of reality. That's why I describe governing as a design opportunity for associations. Boards and CEOs can collaborate to design governing to be what they need it to be for their organizations within the constraints set forth by third parties.

    Many people have called for so-called competency-based boards, but that is not sufficient by itself. Boards also must develop the necessary capabilities to govern their organizations effectively. Governing is about mindset more than mechanics.

    You may want to direct your readers to my recent post on ten "next truths" of governing the 21st century association:

    As the current chair of a national non-profit board, I would be pleased to share more perspectives on what it takes to build a better board.

  2. Thanks for your comments Jeff. And, for providing the link to your 10 truths for 21st century governance.