A World Without Boards

A million years ago back in Dallas (actual time: just over a month), Jeff De Cagna, in his unsession on Associations Unorthodox, has asked us to think about radical questions to ask.

Now I love the idea of a radical question. One of the focal points of my consulting work is that asking the right question is as important as getting the right answer, if not more so. Too often, we ask the wrong question, come up with a truly genius answer, and then end up frustrated when it doesn’t fix the problem. And then we kick ourselves for coming up with a bad solution, when that wasn’t the problem at all. We started in the wrong place, so it was going to be virtually impossible for us to end in the right one.

Anyway, here’s what I came up with:

Here’s my radical ?: are boards the best way to run our orgs? What would the alt be/look like? #asae12
— Elizabeth Engel (@ewengel) August 13, 2012

Now, as my wise friend Leslie White, the excellent risk management consultant, points out: assuming your association is formally incorporated (which about 99.876% of us are), you are legally required to have some sort of board.

(Thanks, Leslie.)

So I guess my real question is: why do they operate as they do?

I know not all boards behave badly. But over the years, I’ve seen personal agendas, ego-based posturing, arrogance, cluelessness, personal aggrandizement, meddling with issues outside their ken, lack of willingness to take appropriate responsibility, and lack of willingness to ask difficult questions, all to an alarming degree.

And I don’t just blame the individual board members. We, as association professionals, do a poor job of properly training and preparing them for board service, and then setting and enforcing boundaries. It’s no wonder they have a tendency to run wild.

The reason it becomes a big problem is that the board has a lot of power.


It’s not for legal reasons.

And I’m not saying that no board should ever fulfill the common responsibilities of financial oversight and planning and managing the chief staff executive. I’m just asking why we act as if they have to.

I don’t have an answer to the question of a world without boards – or at least, pace Leslie, where board service is dramatically different.

But if we aren’t being well-served by the model (and some of us plainly aren’t), why not look for an alternative?

3 thoughts on “A World Without Boards”

  • Off the top of my head, some thoughts about why boards behave badly:

    Staff doesn't stand up to them
    The board doesn't have ego invested in the success of the enterprise. They have their own ego issues of looking good, and they don't want it to fail on their watch, but they don't have ego invested in the future of the enterprise.
    There is rarely a shared understanding of the real authority picture.
    They distribute power and authority just enough to prevent it from being mobilized.
    We empower them to make decisions on things that are quite specifically outside of their expertise.
    We spend years making “the board” a really big deal, which makes it impossible to later experiment with its form and function.

    What do you think?

  • Well, I would think every association CEO would add an agenda item to the next board meeting that was something along the lines of “How does this Board best serve the enterprise?” We ALL should be starting that conversation now, because it might take a while. The board would have to see where it adds or sucks out value. With that picture clear, you could start talking about experimenting with form. But right now the purpose and value of the board is simply accepted as a given. That's what needs to change.

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