represents is one of the most important things you’ll do as a volunteer board member. Do it well and your contribution to the advancement of industry will be felt for decades to come, inspiring and empowering future generations of entrepreneurs. Do it poorly and your industry can quickly become less relevant to consumers and less appealing to investors. Declining levels of association membership are usually a strong indicator that the board either hasn’t developed or hasn’t communicated a vision for the future that resonates with the members. The strategies listed below are just a few of the options available to an association board that isn’t living up to its full leadership potential. It will usually take a combination of approaches to overcome the vision-impairment challenge.
1) Make sure all directors understand the role of an industry association board
Just because someone heads up a successful enterprise doesn’t mean they automatically know what their role as an industry association director is. Ensure that each director understands what the organization’s mission is, has a good sense of the organization's history and of his or her obligation to create new opportunities for all of the association’s members, not just those of a certain size or in a certain location or following a specific business model.
2) Encourage directors to continually evaluate their own expectations
Associations of all kinds suffer when board volunteers look to their involvement in the organization to meet personal needs such as gaining resume experience, enhancing their own profile or advancing a certain agenda with respect to regulatory changes. The interests of the membership as a whole, both now and in the future, always have to be each director’s primary focus. When individual agendas or a desire for recognition are allowed to prevail, the range of possibilities the board will consider becomes too narrow to be effective.
3) Do less and think more
Vision, leadership and groundbreaking ideas will always be in short supply at the board level if board members are spending time and energy on the wrong things. If the bulk of their time is spent on "administrivia" or short-term "projects," insufficient time and attention will be allocated to expanding the organization’s knowledge of the factors affecting its members. A first step to tackling this problem is for the board chairs to start monitoring how the board as a whole and individual board volunteers spend their time. You can inexpensively outsource most any task involving handling money, data or member communications, but there is no subsistute for volunteers who are focused on representing members' interests at the board table.
4) Foster a learning culture at all levels of the organization
Knowledge inspires imagination and ultimately, vision. Many small and fledgling associations use a working board structure. Each board member takes on a different task or role and engages his or her contacts both within and outside of the organization to make their project a success. Larger associations tend to focus on governance and making sure the organization’s policies are sufficient to ensure sound staff performance relative to predetermined goals. Both models leave volunteers at risk of becoming so consumed by specifics that they do not keep enhancing their knowledge of the industry, beyond their immediate sphere of experience. A learning board commits to both continuous learning and to continuous sharing what it learns with the membership at large. The learning board understands that members with a broader vision will result in a better future for the industry as a whole.
5) Acknowledge the underlying cause of past mistakes
There is perhaps nothing so toxic to the vision of an industry association board than reluctance to admit and truly understand past mistakes. Volunteer board members have a tendency to assume that because the faces around the board room table or in the office have changed, the organization’s output will as well. However, if an organization’s vision or values have been unclear in the past, this is most likely reflected in the organization’s policies (or lack thereof) and the association’s performance will be less than optimal, even if the current board, staff and suppliers are great. Never settle for serving on a board that goes from crisis to crisis, simply because everyone is too polite to confront past mistakes. What isn't acknowledged can't ever be fixed.
6) Focus on the mission
Mission statements and organizational efforts to develop mission statements are often the butt of jokes; however, crafting a concise statement of the organization’s mission can be a good way of focusing the board’s attention on what’s really important. At minimum, an association should have in writing and periodically revisit and reaffirm the following:
-Its vision for the industry or sector
-Mission of the organization
-Values or principles that guide the organization’s decisions and actions
More than just PR tools, these items are vital guidelines for organizational performance. In most cases, the best way to develop or revise them is to engage an outside professional with strong facilitation skills and experience working with organizations of your association’s own size and scope.
Please contact The Association Expert if you need customized board member orientation manuals, training or other resources to help your board of directors overcome leadership challenges.