How Association Governance Has Changed and the Next Big Challenge

Governance practices are often slow to change because leaders can be deeply vested in current power structures and processes.

When I uncovered a 2001 scan of association governance practices while cleaning out old files, I was intrigued by what has changed and what hasn’t. Perhaps you will be, too.

This scan for a large state association considering how to transform a traditional, entrenched structure offers advice about leading change that still rings true today:

  1. Resistance to significant change is high. Radical restructuring challenges a herd of sacred cows. Rather than be trampled in a stampede, most associations opt for less change than they may envision.
  2. You can’t communicate too much. Your processes have to be completely transparent to your members. When the sacred cows trust the process and the rewards ahead, they do fall in step.

That amusing metaphor about sacred cows aside, these observations explain why governance change tends to be incremental and why CEOs can get rather trampled trying.

This 2001 scan of innovations in governance practice identified four broad themes:

  • Self-organizing to stay open and flexible to changing environments. In 2001 associations had a high interest in communities of practice. With more robust technology platforms to support this interchange today, many associations have this capability. However, it is used more often in support of peer learning and knowledge exchange than governance. It is now the norm for association boards to use Internet-based communication and coordination technologies. Association boards get that “positive deviance” can be an indicator of viable solutions and paths forward. If something works well somewhere within the association, they are eager to extend the idea.   
  • Learning amid uncertainty through good questions and risk-taking, Association boards are keenly aware they need to practice strategic governance with associations using a range of tactics from agenda design to strategic conversations to ensure time for strategic thinking. The ASAE Foundation through the ASAEForesightWorks program is championing environmental scanning and forecasting and helping associations create a culture of foresight. A third innovation cited in 2001, leadership cabinets and think tanks, has probably morphed into advisory councils and boards, particularly where board members cannot offer perspectives essential to an industry or profession.; these advisory groups are not commonplace, perhaps because associations can use other means to expand their perspective.
  • Inclusivity—using different perspectives to enhance understanding. In 2001 the scan identified high interest and high adoption rates for competency-based boards. This is generally accepted as good practice now, although quite a few associations have not dropped a geographic or sector representational model. In 2001 associations were transforming nominating committees into governance committees to focus on improving board performance. Whether a committee takes that responsibility in 2018, there is a healthy awareness of board behaviors that contribute to higher performance. Having what the 2001 scan called boards of the future is definitely a 2018 priority. Associations are adopting diversity and inclusion policies and working to diversify their boards—perhaps at a slower rate than desirable. In 2018, as in 2001, associations have limited interest in appointing outside directors to gain an outside perspective.
  • A bias to action—learning by doing and growing from both success and failure. Boards have a great interest today in using data to inform their decisions. They do use task forces to boost their capacity to understand and act on specific issues. A growing number of associations budget innovation funds to pursue pilot projects.  While board decision-making is still perceived as slow, association boards are trying to have a bias toward action to be responsive to a fast-changing world.

As we look at governance practices in 2018, the ASAE ForesightWorks research identified new challenges:  the consequences of the inter-related drivers of change of a splintered society, declining trust, and transparent organizational ethics.  These change challenges suggest the next big challenge for good governance practices is accountability to vision and mission in the face of increasing conflict and declining consensus. That 2001 advice that you can’t communicate too much and transparency matters appears to be timeless.