Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Bridging the Divide from Members to Board

I always enjoy Debra BenAvram's contributions to Nonprofit Conversation. This entire article is good, but one thing that really caught my eye was the idea of a "competency matrix" as a tool for choosing Board Members. How many of you have that kind of formalized approach? How many times have we thrown out the net to find Board Members without really analyzing the skills and talent the organization really needs? Good read. Bunnie

Bridging the Divide from Members to Board

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.

However, 25 percent of our membership is brand new each year. And, for the most part, research is fairly far down on their list of priorities. So it is imperative that we balance the board’s overall vision with the needs – i.e. networking, professional development, resources, certification - of our general membership. At the same time, we must work to gain buy-in from those new professionals on the organization’s research focus. Helping these members see how research impacts their practice builds the bridge between what where the members are and where the Board wants to go. It doesn’t always work that way—sometimes there’s a major disconnect—but a truly visionary Board ideally works to gain member buy-in and avoids mutiny.

Resolving the Difference

Thankfully, there are some tried and true approaches that create balance. By using these steps, A.S.P.E.N. has managed to bridge the gap between our board and general members:

Refer Back to Your Strategic Plan - Often

Having a documented road map - and ensuring all members have access to it – helps keep everyone informed of where the organization is headed. When decisions are made, it should be to further the objectives of this plan. Strategy should be seen as living, though, not as a static document that must be followed. The Board and other leaders should continually review and update the plan to ensure that the course is the right one, and that the organization is on track. All of this should be well communicated to members. After all, it’s their organization.

Use Data

Poll members regularly to ensure board decisions reflect their needs and desires. Even when budgets are tight, don’t be tempted to cut funding for membership surveys--there are both expensive and inexpensive ways to gather data. It is imperative to understand your members’ needs as you make decisions about where the organization is going. Involving Board members and other leaders in the survey design helps them to become even more vested in the outcome.

Facilitate Board Interaction with Members

This might seem simple, but it’s something that needs to be consciously tended. For instance, at A.S.P.E.N.’s annual meeting, Clinical Nutrition Week, our board members have historically been “locked away” at meetings. However, at the 2009 event, we made a conscious decision to have board members participate as attendees so that they could see the fruits of their labor and network with members. Providing attendees with informal access to board members created great dialog and a lot of good will.

Nonprofits are Mission Driven

You can be sure that all those who engage, from general members to the board and everyone in between, are connected with the mission in some way, even if they don’t realize it. Sometimes, decisions are made that are not immediately understood across all levels. It’s a challenge, no doubt. But, as long as they are data-driven, have been made sensitively, with respect given to the lens of the general population, and every effort has been made to create transparency, the organization will likely be able to successfully move forward.

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

Not every volunteer should be a board member, and that is perfectly acceptable! Some members might add tremendous value and have great energy at the committee level or even by simply being a general member. The trick is to find what works, and it’s an individual process. That said...

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.

Don’t Rely on the Top of the Organizational Pyramid for All the Answers

When a strategic decision is being made, reach out to people, invite them to participate in the process and educate them on the best way to do so. All members, not just those with defined positions, own the organization.

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.

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