Wednesday, December 18, 2013

What do we do about apathetic association boards?


Back on September 12, I posted a blog “9 reasons to fire your association board members.”

So, I’ve read with interest a recent string of comments on ASAE Collaborate responding to Mike Levin’s query:

  • “Our Board of Directors (12 people) seem to have become apathetic. Have any of you run into this situation or have any suggestions? Thanks.”
Here are the responses to date.

Thackwray Driver, Chief Executive Officer, The Energy Chamber of Trinidad & Tobago

  • If the Board members are apathetic about the association you need new Board members. 
  • But before going there I'd suggest you think about whether the Board members are apathetic or if the Board meetings are boring. I sat on the Board of one association a few years back and the whole day Board meetings were just so boring, long and procedural that you could physically feel the energy draining out of the room. We spent the first few hours of every board meeting re-hashing the minutes of the last Board meeting and we only ever got on to the substantive stuff when everyone was already bored and exhausted. 
  • Learning from that experience and wanting to make sure we did not repeat it in our association, I made a recommendation to our then Chairman that we switch around the order of our meeting agenda and make sure that we discuss issues relating to our advocacy agenda first and that we only turn to reviewing minutes of the last meeting, management reports and the routine stuff at the end of the meeting. I did not do this because we had a problem but to preempt the possibility in the future. This change has led to really energetic meetings and a Board who is very engaged. Be aware that preparing for a Board meeting like this takes a lot more thought, effort and planning and is hard work for the executive staff - I am always drained, but usually very satisfied at the end of our Board meetings. 
  • Incidentally the association with the boring Board meetings I referred to earlier eventually collapsed and closed its doors.
Joseph Tiernay, Executive Director, Ontario Good Roads Association:
  • I had the same feeling about my 15 member Board so I suggested that we run a "Board Engagement" session. I hired a facilitator for the day.
  • It's almost humorous but only 7 of my Board were able to attend the session. I was disappointed but one of the main reasons I held the session was to make sure there were no underlying issues that my Board was reluctant to raise during regular meetings.
  • SCD’s NOTE: 42% of board didn’t attend this session! Now, that is apathy!
Stuart Binstock, President and CEO, Construction Financial Management Association
  • I guess people write books about this issue but my short answer would be a couple of things. First, I have found that our Chairman can have a big impact on the tenor of the meetings. Our Chairman this year has made a conscious effort to get people involved and has also made it a conscious effort to try and have some fun along the way – work hard, play hard motto. But, perhaps the biggest change for us this year is that we did a great job selecting new members of the Board, which we call our Executive Committee. The folks we selected are bright, engaged and enthusiastic. If you start with those kind of folks, I think you greatly increase your likelihood of success.
Michele Packard-Milam CAE, Executive Director, Emergency Medicine Residents Association
  • I have seen apathetic Boards, and it seems to me that they are most often cause by one or more of these situations:
    • · They are adrift from the mission - or the mission is not compelling.
    • · They are being treated like rubber stampers of the staff's 'real' work, and they are either disenfranchised or bored ... or both.
    • · The meetings are too rote or the discussions are moving too slowly to be interesting, so they check out.
  • I think there are several things that need to be considered:
    • · How long since they revisited the mission and vision of the organization?
    • · Is the Strategic Plan in play, so that there are long-term goals they need to strive for? If not, is it time to refresh?
    • · Is the Board President suppressing meaningful dialogue and input?
    • · Are you practicing Knowledge-Based Governance? This can do a great deal to increase the velocity and power of the Board's time together.
    • · Is your election process bringing in people who are there for the wrong reasons?
  • I know this is a lot to think about, but there are many steps you can take to shift them back into a higher gear. 
Jennifer Simpson, Chief Association Executive
  • YES! My sentiments exactly and I am staying up nights worried about it. For years we had a dynamic brotherhood of board members who all shared a love of fine wines, good cigars, and friendly banter. Anytime we had a difficult situation to discuss, I knew the recipe was to set them up with after dinner drinks and cigars and all would be worked out by midnight.
  • Now, the board members we have seem to be younger, more career driven, competitive, and apathetic. I'm lucky if I can get them all to a meeting with their busy schedules and I have no idea how to build the relationships we once had. This group of executives are very health conscious, do not drink or smoke, and want to "get in and get out." It's hard to build relationships with so many typical "A" personalities.
  • Any suggestions out there? I realize it's my responsibility to pull them all together but if I can't get them in the same room to focus on the tasks at hand, how am I going to try to pull them all together to build comradery?
Teresa Stohs MS, Executive Director, Women's Jewelry Association
  • Mike, this is one of the greatest challenges we face in association management. I've been reading through all the replies – some great advice here. I do have something new to add.
  • I have found that each board member needs a "job," something specific that they own. It's easy for the treasurer to own the financial report. And the secretary to own the minutes. But others need something that they own in order to get engagement. In talking to your board members one-on-one, you can find what aspects of your organization are of the most interest to them. Then try to get them connected to that aspect. 
Suzanne Cook, Executive Director, Florida Green Building Coalition

  • Here's the feedback I received when I asked my "mentor" the same question:
    • Give each Board member oversight of a committee or function and have them report on their area of responsibility at every Board meeting.
    • Create an honor or award for Board member who brings in the most new members during the year.
    • Require that Board members serve on at least one committee.
    • Assign every non-renewing member to a Board member to be contacted, first trying to get them to rejoin, but second finding out why they dropped.
    • Make it more prestigious to serve on the Board (recognition at the annual conference, etc.). 
    • Select a Board Member of the Year and announce at the annual conference. 
    • Reduce the size of the Board if you think it's too big... when there are too many Board members, there seems to be a lack of individual responsibility.
    • Feature your most active Board members in the e-newsletter with photo and mini-bio. 
    • Assign each Board member to each e-newsletter and have them contribute an item on their area of expertise.
    • Have Board members secure a sponsor for and host a small reception for members in their region of the state (Board members could be grouped for this purpose). 
    • Try to figure out why your Board members are apathetic. Is it because they don't feel they make a difference? Do they not feel a sense of "ownership" for the organization? Are they on the Board just for their resume? 
    • Consider a participation requirement and phase out those Board members who are not participating on a regular basis. 
    • Make a point to encourage younger Board members. This could be a function of your Nominating Committee if you have one.
    • Finally, and more generally, I think you should paint a picture of what a "passionate" Board member looks like. Try to define it. Then reshape the requirements of the position to capture that type of individual and weed out the others.

    Rick Doyle, President, Synthetic Turf Council

    • Mike - Our Board has never been more engaged since we developed what we call our Four Pillars of Strategic Priority -- Educate, Market, Advocate on Critical Issues, and Recruit and Retain Members. These are the guideposts we use when setting our annual goals, developing our committee and task force work plans, deciding how to allocate our financial resources, organizing our interactive work sessions at our membership meetings, and engaging our Board. Based on their interest, each Board member is assigned a Pillar to help lead -- three Board members per Pillar. As Pillar leaders, they are responsible for helping to set annual goals within their Pillar, establish accountabilities for the work that needs to be done by various committees and/or task forces, and provide leadership and a Board link to those committees and task forces. The Pillar leaders may or may not elect to serve on a committee or task force, but they monitor the work that is being done, and meet at least monthly to review the work progress. Each month they report to the Board on all that is being done to meet the Pillar objectives for the year. Organizing our Board and Membership meetings within this structure has made them more productive and purposeful.
Michael LoBue MS, CAE, President, LoBue & Majdalany Management Group
    • Our fundamental responsibility as chief staff officer for an organization is to get their boards to do what their organizations need them to do, not necessarily what they want to do -- it's great when there's a big overlap of the two, but often there's not. We have no actual authority in these situations, but we have their attention and if we take it and use it properly we can do so much more than merely having authority would ever allow us to do.

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