Finally Great Research into the Toughest Association Change Challenge

Finally, association executives and their boards have a well-researched book with reliable guidance to initiate a powerful conversation around governance change.

Beth Gazley and Katha Kissman’s Transformational Governance: How Boards Achieve Extraordinary Change”, co-published by ASAE and Wiley, builds on the findings of a 2013 ASAE Foundation survey research project into governance for membership organizations. As the authors note, the 2013 research found that what matters far more than board structure is board dynamics, “specifically an association’s success at forging strong board-staff relationships, creating a strategic orientation, and developing a culture of learning and accountability”.  

In my experience, the most hazardous change any association can undertake is a governance change. This new reference explains why and offers a lot of thoughtful and practical advice for implementing governance changes.  The researchers do this through a careful analysis of change leadership and governance literature, mining the 2013 research to identify associations with high performing boards, and soliciting the wisdom of CEOs, board chairs and governance consultants from 56 case study interviews. The book includes a great cross-section of case studies to illustrate its findings.

I can’t think of a better must-read for association boards in 2016. As Gazley and Kissman observe, “broaching these practices as something reflective of the increasing sophistication and professionalization of the nonprofit sector can make the process nonthreatening… Healthy governance change is usually preemptive and occurs before an association’s board has reached the point of failure.”

Whatever your current insights into governance and change leadership, you will find something useful to add to your knowledge base. I enjoyed the descriptions of change models and concluded my own approach is closest to the positive model. I also like this insight a lot:  “The agents of board change should understand that they will not only have to manage its structural aspects, they will also have to help board members, staff and the organization’s membership adapt emotionally and cognitively.”

In the past I’ve observed that a successful change initiative requires an alignment of the stars, especially strong leaders as board chair and CEO who trust each other. Sometimes another board leader or industry leader can step into the volunteer leadership role, but only with the board chair endorsing the effort and demonstrating how important this work is. Gazley and Kissman devote chapters to the roles of the board chair and CEO in a change initiative.  In a third chapter they give credit to the support of external consultants who can bring expertise, objectivity, and facilitation to these efforts.  

The small steps of governance change will strike the naïve as noncontroversial and rather boring. I mean, who really wants to work on a bylaws change or believes that reworking the mechanics of a board meeting can help? Changing who and how many are on the board does look hard and it is, since board members usually have to vote themselves out of a job, or have a House of Delegates authorize the change.

At first I was struck by how dated and drawn out the timetables in the case studies seem. This is actually a key finding in the research. “Among the 44 associations that provided us an estimate of the time required to complete a governance transformation, one third (32%) reported an investment of one to two years, 39 percent reported three to five years, and the remaining 30 percent reported the process took six or more years.”

I’ve always warned any association leader contemplating governance change that courage is required. Apparently it also takes tremendous patience.