by Debra BenAvram, CEO of the American Society for Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition
Professionals become members of industry organizations for a variety of reasons: education, information, resources, networking and often for certification. While they may value their affiliation, most never take it to the next level by becoming engaged in a volunteer or board capacity. There are, however, a select number who become increasingly active, first as part of a committee, then perhaps even as a leader. A very few, very active members move on to a board position.
It’s not surprising then, that the profile of a board member does not necessarily mirror that of the overall membership. Board members are likely to have a deeper understanding of governance issues, how decisions are made and the overall strategic direction of the organization. They are likely to be more committed to the organization and to the profession it represents.
However, some organizations face challenges when it’s time for the board to make decisions on behalf of the entire membership. Some board members may make decisions based on instinct; others may want to take action despite receiving contrary feedback. This is where an organization’s staff can play a key role, providing some gentle diplomacy efforts to challenge the board’s decisions and to ensure that the views of the members are duly recognized.
A board’s job, after all, is to see where an organization needs to be in 10 or even 20 years. In that case, the staff can work to ensure complete transparency around decision making, communicating with all members and giving them insight and context as to why certain decisions are being made. If, after providing ample education, the majority of membership is still in disagreement with a particular decision, a board may need to adjust course.
I’ll share an example from my own organization, the American Society for Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition (A.S.P.E.N.), an interdisciplinary organization whose members are involved in all aspects of clinical nutrition therapies. Our board is one that I would place in the visionary category. It has a strong view of where the organization needs to be in the future to advance our mission. One of the fundamental elements is a focus on research, and, accordingly, a significant percentage of our resources are allocated to furthering that goal.
Refer Back to Your Strategic Plan - Often
Nurturing Future Leaders
Most organizations can benefit from having a formal structure in place to identify future leaders. It can help solve for some of the most challenging aspects of organizational management. The path of developing future leadership team members is highly individualized and time intensive. So how do you groom future board members? Here are a few things that have helped me along the way:
Use People’s Skills in the Right Place
Never say “no” to getting someone more involved. Use people who volunteer – all of them. When an obvious fit for a potential volunteer doesn’t seem to exist, find one. Create one! For instance, if a member wants to become more active but may not be particularly well-suited to an existing committee, I often ensure they participate in an ad hoc group. This is a team of people who provide an invaluable resource to A.S.P.E.N. as a sounding board. Doing so let’s that individual know their enthusiasm is valued. It also sends the right message to the entire membership; if you want to get involved, there is a place for you.
Ask all leadership – not just board members - who they think would make appropriate volunteers. People on a particular committee might have strong opinions and suggestions for others who would make good additions to their team. Be sure to get a variety of inputs. Build diversity into the mix. Whether there is a formal process or not, ensure you are vetting potential board members against the needs of the entire group. For instance, A.S.P.E.N. uses a competency matrix as part of its assessment of board nominees. Not only do we have an approved set of skills and experience that the individual must have, but we’ve established a set of competencies needed on the board as a whole. So in evaluating potential new board members, we look across the existing members to determine what particular aspects might be missing and what gaps can be filled. Of course, this can’t be too rigid of a process or you could miss out on some terrific candidates who don’t fit a particular mold. But this type of assessment helps ensure that a full complement of skills is represented.
Ensuring a strong, vibrant pipeline of future leaders is an important, although somewhat intangible, objective for any volunteer-led organization. This isn’t something that always happens on its own, and by the time you realize you don’t have a good group waiting in the wings, it may already be too late. You don’t want to wake up one day only to realize there are no good board candidates or committee chair nominees for the upcoming year. By thinking about your leadership in a purposeful and inclusive way, your organization can avoid this challenge and focus on building for the future.
Debra BenAvram serves as the chief executive officer of the American Society for Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition. She is a certified association executive with areas of expertise including strategy, organizational culture, and volunteer management. She enjoys the balance of working with internal staff, the Board and others to shape the organization. Working with these partners, she works to facilitate the articulation of and movement toward the organization’s vision of its future.