When association executives think about governance, they typically think about fiduciary duties, governing documents and operating in the best interest of the association. However, it can be easy to overlook the toll that failure to observe best governance practices can have on AEs, boards and associations.
Best governance practices include ensuring that all parties contributing to the process understand their distinct roles and responsibilities. This allows AEs and the members of board of directors to operate in sync and the association to thrive. Directors derive satisfaction from their volunteer efforts, and the AE is empowered to execute the association’s mission as part of a collaborative partnership with the board.
Ideally, the board and the AE cooperate to promote the interests of the association and its members. The board adopts the governing documents, defines the mission and sets goals. It then directs and empowers the AE to carry out the mission and goals set by the board through the AE’s management of association staff and resources.
The challenge facing many AEs is how to effectively engage directors while promoting a division of responsibilities between AEs and the board to maximize the association’s performance. Here are some tips and best practices for ensuring that the respective roles of boards and AEs are complementary and clearly defined and serve the best interests of the association and its membership.
- Review the governing documents. Well-drafted bylaws provide the board and the AE with a road map on roles and responsibilities and are helpful as a reference to ensure the association stays on course.
- Build and maintain trust. Trust is essential to any successful relationship, including between the AE and board. Trust is earned by clear, candid communication. AEs should be transparent and willing to share both good and bad news with the board. They should also follow through on board directives. Trust is especially important between the board president and the AE, as they will be working together to determine priorities, set the agenda and run meetings.
- Solicit feedback. AEs should consider regularly engaging directors for feedback to enhance the partnership between the AE and the board and to understand directors’ individual volunteer experience. Feedback can be obtained informally through conversations or even anonymously to ensure candid responses. Asking for board feedback can enhance trust, provide an opportunity for directors to think critically about the role of the board and provide valuable feedback on how AEs can better support the board in achieving the association’s objectives.
- Conduct a director orientation. Consider holding an annual board of directors orientation for incoming directors. Whether the directors have no prior experience or have previously served on boards, this is an opportunity to educate and set expectations. Director orientations typically include an overview of the association’s mission, strategic plan, bylaws and policies, fiduciary duties, budgetary process and expectations for directors during their term on the board.
- Guide strategic meetings. AEs can counsel or guide the officers and directors to ensure efficient and productive board meetings. For example, AEs can counsel board presidents to create meeting agendas focused on high-level reporting and action items requiring board awareness and approval. AEs can also incorporate the association’s mission, vision and strategic plan in the board meeting packet to facilitate strategic decision-making. AEs may recommend the board adopt a fiduciary pledge that directors acknowledge at the start of every meeting.
- Establish protocols for director-staff communications. The board hires, directs and supervises the AE so that the AE can manage association staff. With changing leadership each year, having an initial conversation will help the AE and board leadership understand each other’s communication styles and preferences. This in turn can help the AE work with staff to understand the board’s expectations and develop protocols so staff can effectively deliver great service and support the board’s efforts. This will ensure a productive working relationship between the board and staff—and help the AE execute the association’s mission with staff ’s assistance.
AEs may also see their well-being enhanced thanks to reduced stress and the feeling of empowerment that comes from true alignment and partnership between the AE and the board.
When AEs proactively take steps to establish and maintain effective and strategic relationships with association leadership, this will in turn increase the likelihood that the AE is able to deliver on the association’s goals. Organizational success directly benefits the members, directors, staff and the AE, but AEs may also see their well-being enhanced thanks to reduced stress and the feeling of empowerment that comes from true alignment and partnership between the AE and the board.