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If members are the engine that drives an association, your board of directors is its engineer. The health of the board is essential to the health of your organization and it takes intentional care and feeding to nurture. However, for many organizations, there is little intentionality. It’s not uncommon for associations to rest on tradition and old habits to guide board formation.

“I think it’s really important for associations to not get into the mindset of ‘he’s put in his time, so now it’s his turn,'” says Tom Tidyman, SBI Association Executive. In other words, being a longtime volunteer does not entitle you to a board seat. Rather, he explains, the board (and its nomination committee) should be asking: “What type of leadership do we need right now?”

Consider the ideal nominations committee or board development committee: A mix of insiders and outsiders, people with established industry and association relationships. There’s room for your past president, president-elect, and a few association leaders not involved with the board.

Tap a few strong “talent identifiers,” individuals who understand candidates’ skill sets, historic contributions, and ability to engage with fellow team members. Building a strong, high-functioning board doesn’t occur overnight.

We recommend a nomination committee work plan that covers a full calendar year. Their assignment doesn’t end after elections are finished, but continues through new board member training (history of the organization, mission and strategy, and even association culture should be addressed) and half-year check-ins with each new director to identify challenges, road blocks and anything missed during orientation. The objective is to keep them motivated and engaged in their new leadership role.

It may take one or two election cycles to nominate and elect the ideal mix of talent. And certainly, that talent needs to be managed. This responsibility begins with the president but it’s essentially everyone’s job to hold fellow board members accountable to fulfill their new roles.

Here are some ways to leverage and develop individual talents in your association as you guide key candidates toward board membership:

  • Reality check: Identify gaps between goals (what a board says it wants) and actions (decisions it makes to achieve those goals). For example, if an association has a commitment to diversity, that goal should be reflected in membership and leadership alike. So when six people are slated for three election seats and all are white and male, the slate certainly fails to reflect an organizational goal. When acknowledged, such a dichotomy can lead to healthy conversations and re-engagement with members who can actively help expand the slate of nominees.
  • Rule- and Role-breaking: Rather than adhere to the traditional progression of positions (i.e., a board member begins at Secretary and elevates in responsibility to Treasurer, V.P. and eventually President), be open to assigning the right person and skills to the right position. For example, some groups are strategic about electing an experienced CPA or finance professional to serve as Treasurer but whose skills and interests are unlikely to ever fulfill the presidency. It’s not necessary to feel obligated to “promote” a great volunteer simply for protocol or tradition.
  • Communications channels: Help your board communicate consistently. If there are only two face-to-face board meetings each year, directors will take longer to know and trust one another. Facilitate interim conference calls (video is ideal) so people can check in with one another and hear new ideas, address challenges and brainstorm creatively. More frequent virtual meetings can make up for fewer in-person meetings — and as a result, your board will become an engine that chugs along, even if it’s heading up a steep hill.

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