I was recently having lunch with the CEO of a not-for-profit association. We spent time discussing how to re-align the organizational structure to better support the changing needs of today's members. We literally sketched out using a napkin, a team central structure that was more focused, more collaborative and more aligned with supporting the needs of members.
"This all makes complete sense," the CEO said, "But how on earth will I ever get the board to buy-in and support me in introducing this change?" It would seem that despite the CEOs tenure, it was unlikely that the current board would be willing to adopt this change or easily accept his recommendations.
Is this a problem you've encountered?
If so, my guess is that despite your best efforts to introduce governance that supports a stronger collaboration with and amongst the board, you still experience a significant amount of pushback from members and far too many delays and obstacles considering the rapid pace of change amongst your market. Add to this the complexities that arise from a board structure that renews every three to five years and a chair position that only requires an annual commitment, and you've got a recipe for disaster and a severe headache.
It's been my experience that for an association or not-for-profit to thrive, it's absolutely crucial that the roles of those in executive board positions be redefined and embraced in order to support the evolution of the organization itself. Said differently, the role of a board is not to govern the CEO, but to provide support and perspective to assist the CEO in making decisions quickly and effectively.
Many of the boards I've encountered do quite the opposite. All of the effort and work to engage employees and members, redesigning the support and services to enhance member value will in the end fail miserably if the board itself is a burden.
Association Boards Must Adapt to Thrive
Based on my work during the past decade helping chief executive officers and boards gain greater clarity and alignment in order to support a more collaborative and empowered association that offers higher levels of value to members and donors, the following are the key shifts necessary to thrive in today's environment:
To begin with, the days of behind-door secretive discussions between the CEO and the board are gone. To ensure that member needs are clearly presented for the board to understand, and to reduce the burden for the CEO in being the "bearer of bad news," staff themselves must be engaged in board meetings. This can take the form of employee participation, or more formal presentations and discussions but it is NOT limited just to executive levels.
The key is not to have employees present to satisfy board member needs. Rather, board members must engage in dialogue with employees to better understand their needs and what they believe would best satisfy members and donors.
With increased engagement between board members and employees, members, and contractors the fall-out is likely to be painful. Board members who are accustomed to formal meetings followed closely by the ever-popular evening boondoggle are going to push back. Trust me, I speak from experience.
The heavy lifting then comes for the chief executive officer to take a more active and assertive role in ensuring the board itself contains the right kind of members, not simply those that are passionate for the cause or have a specific skill set that may be necessary.
Simply put, to ensure the board is supportive of and engaged in this new way of thinking, it's critical to ensure that board members themselves are supportive, engaged and collaborative. In some cases, this will require a culling of longstanding members that refuse to change. Doing so is much easier to achieve if the chair is supportive of this new direction.
With a new open and collaborative board, the association's strategy should not be approached as an isolated event. That's right, the days of the annual off-site strategic planning event are gone.
With the rapid pace of change, it is crucial that CEOs and their boards review strategy twice annually, involving members, employees, and even supportive contractors in the process. A strategy cannot be achieved if it is formulated in isolation with limited information and participation. The more feedback and input to the strategy, the greater the chance it will be realized.
What the Future Holds
It goes without saying that we are amidst challenging times for many not-for-profits, but the answer to increased membership and donor engagement, retention, and attraction strategies begins and ends with a CEO and board who are willing to create a more participatory environment. They must engage with members, employees and even contractors to gain clear insight into the changes necessary, and of course to create the buy-in and support necessary to introduce those very changes.
As more CEOs recognize that this shift is required, I predict you'll see more vacancies in CEO positions as board members refuse to comply. In next month's column, I'll discuss how to deal with pushback from your board members. Until then, consider how you can increase engagement of members and employees in your strategic discussions.
The value is priceless.
Shawn Casemore is the President and Founder of Casemore and Co Inc., a management consultancy helping association executives improve the performance and profitability of their association through their people. As the author of Operational Empowerment: Innovate, Collaborate and Engage to Beat the Competition from McGraw Hill, Shawn travels the globe speaking on topics related to improving business performance by capitalizing on employee empowerment.
CEOs face a number of issues, just a few of which Shawn addresses here. To get a grasp on still more, consider attending the upcoming CSAE CEO Symposium in Vancouver. Click the button below for details.