Association Boards Must Become More: Part I

By Jeff De Cagna, AIMP FRSA FASAE • July 18, 2023

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

The title of this two-part series is the mantra I introduced in the final paragraph of my June 2022 online article for ASAE’s Associations Now. Here is what I wrote at the time:

Starting today, association boards must become more. Even though it will be difficult work, building fit-for-purpose boards is our community’s best hope for shifting The Turbulent Twenties in a more favorable direction for ourselves, our stakeholders, and our successors. [Emphasis in original.]

Over the last 13 months, this mantra has featured in my client sessions, public presentations, and written work. On those occasions when I get the question, “More than what?” my immediate response is what do you think? Directors and officers must challenge themselves and imagine how they and their boards can become more than they have been historically, more than they are today, and more than they might believe is attainable. I hope that this series will spark fresh thinking about the possibilities.

For me, “association boards must become more” is a deeply-felt guiding principle because I believe association boards matter. Association boards are human systems guiding human systems (in collaboration with staff partners and other contributors) into a profoundly uncertain future. This complex, critical, and high-stakes work demands and deserves top performance. The respect I feel toward association board directors and officers who accept this burden is boundless. It inspires me to do everything I can to support their efforts to set a higher standard of stewardship, governing, and foresight [SGF].

In Part I, I want to make clear why associations need fit-for-purpose boards and share the first three of six habits of mind that directors, officers, and boards must develop to become more.

Why Associations Need Fit-for-Purpose Boards

In Associations Now last summer, I shared three fundamental reasons why associations need fit-for-purpose boards on which I want to elaborate here:

• Associations are vital 21st-century institutions—In this middle third of The Turbulent Twenties, as the world begins to confront the conditions of polycrisis, we must we must make substantive progress in addressing the severe problems we face before the 2030s begin. Unfortunately, at every level of society, the conversations about these issues feel riven by deep discord, and public trust in traditional institutions is low. Fit-for-purpose boards can demonstrate their associations’ institutional legitimacy (and their own) by prioritizing the common good over ideological division and uniting their stakeholders in the quest for real solutions.

• Associations are critical contributors to broader industry/professional ecosystems—A significant reason for low trust in traditional institutions is their focus on short-term, self-interested, and sometimes zero-sum agendas devised to deliver more substantial benefits to a privileged few. Fit-for-purpose boards can push back on this dynamic by collaborating across and beyond the boundaries of their industry and professional by collaborating across the boundaries of their industry and professional ecosystems, focusing on making short-term sacrifices and taking long-term action that creates meaningful, positive-sum outcomes for society, stakeholders, and successors.

• Association boards must stand up for their successors’ futures—As I wrote in this space in October 2022, “association boards must replace [the] decades-long practice of deferring risk to future humans who have no say in the matter with a thoughtful exploration of…[how] to reduce the risk exposure and impact their successors will inherit in the years ahead.” [Emphasis in original.] Fit-for-purpose association boards recognize their unique obligation to successors and the vital role they can play in shaping a better future for human beings they will never know personally. 

Three Essential Habits of Mind

We should be clear from the outset that developing the six habits of mind I will share in this two-part series (three below and three more next month) demands intentional learning. Distinct from the incidental learning that may occur during limited free moments in their busy daily schedules, intentional learning requires directors and officers to give their full attention, curiosity, and intrinsic motivation to the disciplined pursuit of sustained capacity-building. Shifting existing individual and group mindsets to become future-focused habits of mind is never an “activity” or “exercise” but an ongoing form of challenging and necessary board work.

• Expecting collective responsibilityIt is widely understood that every director and officer serving on an association board must bring a personal sense of responsibility to their roles. Board agency and authority reside in the full group, however, and cannot be exercised without the unequivocal acceptance of collective responsibility and its requirements. Directors and officers must adapt to their boards by setting aside individual agendas, taking collaborative actions for the benefit of stakeholders and successors, and operating within a strong and trusted team dynamic. As a habit of mind, fulfilling the shared expectation of collective responsibility is foundational to every other aspect of board service and work.

• Thinking and acting beyond orthodoxyFor many decades, the conversations and decision-making processes of boards, staff partners, and other contributors have been detrimentally influenced by orthodox beliefs. The limiting impact of these beliefs—the deep-seated assumptions we make about how the world works that exist within every association and human being—creates complacency, induces inertia, and intensifies risk aversion. While boards are not to blame for orthodoxy’s existence, they are responsible for defeating it. As a habit of mind, thinking and acting beyond orthodoxy begins with ensuring that outmoded and damaging beliefs do not undermine board agency, authority, or legitimacy.

• Safeguarding stakeholder/successor humanityThe disturbing reality emerging unmistakably across the social, technological, economic, environmental, and political (STEEP) forces and factors reshaping society is the direct threat they present to humanity, including association stakeholders and successors. The accelerating adoption of artificial intelligence platforms and products, the growing impact of the climate emergency, and multiple forms of painful and unrelenting inequality are placing more human lives in harm’s way every day. As a habit of mind, association boards must act with the clear intention to safeguard their stakeholders’ and successors’ futures through self-sacrificing decisions taken today with both short-term and long-term impact in mind.

Next Month

In Part II, I will present three more essential habits of mind for fit-for-purpose boards and explain why elevating association board performance in this decade is crucial to our community’s future. Until then, thank you for reading, and please stay well.

About The Author

Jeff De Cagna, 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 @dutyofforesight.

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