AI Stewardship for The Fit-for-Purpose Association Board: Part I

By Jeff De Cagna, AIMP FRSA FASAE • July 11, 2024

AUTHOR’S ATTESTATION: This article was written entirely by Jeff De Cagna AIMP FRSA FASAE, a human author, without using generative AI.

As of this article’s publication date (7/11/24), there are 1999 days remaining in The Turbulent Twenties, and 174 days until this decade’s midpoint on January 1, 2025.

Association boards are their organizations’ primary stewards and must do everything they can to leave them and the related systems for which they are responsible better than how they found them for the benefit of stakeholders and successors. When it comes to the profound implications of artificial intelligence (AI), however, building a shared and actionable understanding of what will leave associations, systems, and human beings “better” in the future is not an easy and straightforward question to answer. AI advocates argue that associations should adopt these technologies without delay, while AI skeptics urge the exercise of care.

My intention in writing this series of columns is to support fit-for-purpose association boards and staff partners as they collaborate to craft a common and thoughtful approach to AI stewardship for their organizations. To begin this critical process, I recommend that readers practice adapting themselves to intentional learning by actively calibrating their orientation to the future using the “future number” continuum that is integral to my work with association boards. In this continuum, choosing the number 1 represents a highly pessimistic orientation to the future, while choosing 6 represents a highly optimistic orientation. For the purposes of this series, I suggest readers seek to maintain a “3-4” orientation. The ability to locate and live in the dynamic balance of pessimism and optimism is an essential skill for all human beings to cultivate in The Turbulent Twenties.

Framing AI Stewardship

In early June, I published Part I of my previous Association Adviser series, “The Three Stewardship Imperatives of Fit-for-Purpose Association Boards,” which included an explanation of stewardship’s three core elements of agency, vulnerability, and wayfinding. In this column, I want to elaborate on these definitions to frame how fit-for-purpose association boards should consider their AI stewardship responsibilities.

  • Agency—Fit-for-purpose boards must be active participants in their associations’ AI decision-making processes, working in concert with their CEOs and other staff partners, technology providers, and external consultants/experts. Directing board agency toward the future means that directors/officers need to develop a high-level understanding of AI’s capabilities and limitations to ensure their ability to contribute meaningfully to every conversation. Association boards have the fiduciary duty and legal authority to determine the extent to which their organizations will use AI technologies, and the obligation to require nothing less than ethical, purposeful, and responsible adoption.
  • Vulnerability—As suggested above, AI stewardship is a shared burden, and one that requires a collective recognition of the increased vulnerability that all associations and stakeholders face in a world of widespread AI implementation. No technology is neutral, and there has been extensive documentation of AI’s real-world risks and harms. Despite advocates’ claims, AI is not “just a tool.” It is a disruptive sociotechnical force that is reshaping society in myriad disquieting ways. In the absence of comprehensive national AI regulation in the United States, therefore, fit-for-purpose association boards must prioritize the creation of robust AI governance measures to safeguard both their organizations and the human beings they serve to greatest possible extent.
  • Wayfinding—In addition to the short-term concerns of AI stewardship, association boards and other contributors must critically examine multiple plausible futures for the long-term evolution and impact of artificial intelligence technologies. The high-stakes competition among global AI providers demands that association boards anticipate the introduction of more AI for the rest of this decade and beyond. At the same time, fit-for-purpose boards must remain vigilant for possible shifts in the environment that signal other emerging futures, including more extensive societal backlash and regulatory restraints against the concentration of power and profit in the hands of relative few AI companies and their CEOs.

Building Ethical Decision-making Capacity

To strengthen their AI stewardship, fit-for-purpose association boards must begin to build their capacity for ethical decision-making in all contexts, including technology. In a time of dangerously-low institutional trust, making consistently ethical choices is essential for boards, not only to avoid unwelcome public scrutiny, but also to demonstrate their legitimacy to current stakeholders and their commitment to stand up for the futures of the successors they want to become part of their associations over the rest of this decade and beyond.

Writing in this space last year, I argued, “[w]ithout any hype, AI’s growing impact at every level of society demands that associations tackle crucial ethical questions first.” Unfortunately, it is not possible to have an anticipatory conversation about every ethical difficulty raised by AI. Nevertheless, fit-for-purpose association boards can create more suitable conditions for strong ethical decision-making by devoting their attention to the ongoing exploration of four foundational ethical dilemmas identified by the late Rushworth Kidder, founder of the Institute for Global Ethics. These four dilemmas, or “paradigms” as Kidder described them, are about exploring the tensions that exist between two equally-valid ethical beliefs. Grappling with these “right vs. right” dilemmas will help to nurture new dimensions of ethical thinking for association boards when they explore more specific AI ethics issues and questions.

  • The truth/loyalty dilemma—A principal rationale for affiliating with an association is to gain access to well-established facts and information, i.e., truth. Associations also help to nurture peer relationships in which strong personal loyalties are built over time. For the rest of The Turbulent Twenties, how will fit-for-purpose association boards navigate a world of increasingly hard-to-accept truths that cannot be ignored while respecting the dignity of and showing loyalty toward other human beings?
  • Individual/community dilemma—Associations invite individuals to connect through direct membership outreach that is frequently grounded in a self-interested “what’s in it for me” offer. Associations also describe themselves as communities unified to take purposeful action with mutual benefit in mind. For the rest of The Turbulent Twenties, how will fit-for-purpose boards contend with the desire for greater individual autonomy while still working to create positive-sum group outcomes?
  • The short-term/long-term dilemma—Associations tend to direct most of their energy and time toward serving their core stakeholders’ immediate needs. Many association decision-makers have also begun to recognize that shaping a different future for their organizations requires long-term action. For the rest of The Turbulent Twenties, how will fit-for-purpose association boards address present-day concerns while sustaining a strong orientation toward the future?
  • The justice/mercy dilemma—Associations have codes, rules, and standards that ensure fairness and reliability in the handling of challenging situations. Association decision-makers often want to make exceptions to existing requirements to demonstrate empathy and flexibility. For the rest of The Turbulent Twenties, how will fit-for-purpose association boards uphold a principled approach to their work while leaving room for human compassion?

To be clear, the purpose of exploring these four dilemmas is not to seek their definitive resolution, but to understand their actual and unintended consequences. This intentional learning process will help fit-for-purpose boards develop a dynamic and shared ethical orientation that can guide the effort to leave their associations better than how they found them.

Next Column

In my next column, I will explore the implications of the three stewardship imperatives of fit-for-purpose association boards for AI stewardship. Until then, please stay well and thank you for reading.

MAJOR ANNOUNCEMENT: It is a true honor to collaborate with the Association Forum of Chicagoland to present The Fit-for-Purpose Association Board Director Learning Series—the association community’s first-ever dedicated learning and development experience specifically for current and aspiring board directors—which begins in September 2024. To learn more about the Series, please visit the Association Forum site. (FYI, there is a registration fee to participate in the Series and I am being compensated for my involvement as the Series designer and instructor.)

About The Author

Jeff De Cagna AIMP FRSA FASAE, executive advisor for Foresight First LLC in Reston, Virginia, is an association contrarian, foresight practitioner, governing designer, stakeholder and successor advocate, and stewardship catalyst. In August 2019, Jeff became the 32nd recipient of ASAE’s Academy of Leaders Award, the association’s highest individual honor given to consultants or industry partners in recognition of their support of ASAE and the association community.

Jeff can be reached at [email protected], on LinkedIn at jeffonlinkedin.com, or on Twitter/X @dutyofforesight.

DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in this column belong solely to the author.