Redesigning Governance Is Growing and Unavoidable Priority

More associations are recognizing and confronting their need to redesign governance systems and practices as an unavoidable priority in becoming high-performing organizations.

Among Signature i’s clients, more boards are putting governance redesign into their strategic plans as a priority objective: boards realize their associations are not sufficiently nimble and responsive; traditional governance processes cost too much; and associations are uneasy about their ability to attract sufficient qualified leaders willing to work in slow-moving, time-sucking systems.

As a consulting practice we still treat governance change as the third rail in association management. (If you aren’t familiar with that idiom, think about what happens to people who unwisely touch the rail carrying power for a subway line.)  We are not sure whether we want to touch this change challenge, so we have serious respect for the boards and associations with the courage to do so.

Since a full-on assault to redesign the entire system can be politically dangerous, maybe the wisest initial course is to look for incremental changes that make a difference.  You can get to some early wins, gain some important allies and prove the value of better governance systems and practices, without drawing fire from people who believe any change must be about taking away their power and privileges.

This is why we recommend all association executives and boards thinking about governance change start with the research-based guidance from the ASAE Foundation, available in What Makes High-Performing Boards (Beth Gazley, PhD and Ashley Bowers). This first of its kind study probed the governance practices of a cross-section of member-serving organizations.

Before you try anything else, try these research-based practices.  With apologies to Gazley, who is a careful researcher who doesn’t hype her research, here is our interpretation of the research findings.

  1. Committing time and resources to board orientation, training & development as well as board evaluation pay off. Only about half the boards in the study assessed their own performance.  They are doomed to fail in asking other parts of their association to change if they are unwilling to address their own issues.
  2. Building relationships matter. Too many boards are insular and inefficient at outreach to members and other stakeholders.  They are not transparent about the board makeup so it is easy to see why they become that mysterious “other” with all the unexplained power.  Boards with good relationships with one another and staff are more likely to succeed.  It’s really that simple: we understand and trust each other when we take the time to build relationships.
  3. Processes of leadership renewal contribute to healthy boards. Term limits, competitive elections and diversity requirements renew association leadership through fresh perspectives, new talent and different relationships.  Boards that wonder why they can’t recruit new leaders might want to ask themselves if they are willing to let go and let others move in.  Seriously screening board candidates helps ensure the right people are serving regardless of whether they are elected or appointed.  Here’s an important additional caveat—boards that put people in seats by virtue of their positions rather than their qualifications and commitment to the association are compromising board cohesion and effectiveness.
  4. Strategic plans and strategic thinking are critical to high performance.  It seems to be marginally better when boards create these plans rather than turning the job over to staff.  Once boards have agreed on their plans, they are smart to organize their board meetings to achieve these strategic goals.

The associations we see making governance change a priority are often thinking large scale change including their committee structures, volunteer processes and responsibilities with their local affiliates. They want bottom to top change.  Maybe they should first seek top to bottom change.  They can start with making the changes that will lead to their own high performance. The other changes may come a little easier if they have led by their own example.