Ten Purposeful Provocations for Association Boards Part II

By Jeff De Cagna, AIMP FRSA FASAE • April 15, 2021

As part of this year’s ASAE’s Annual Meeting, I am presenting a pre-conference session on The Ethical Dimensions of The Board’s Duty of Foresight, on Friday, August 13 from 1 pm-4 pm. This is a real-time session on Zoom and can be added to your Annual Meeting registration for just $59 for ASAE members. To learn more, please visit ASAE’s Annual Meeting pre-conference page or email me at [email protected].

In preparation for a presentation in February, I posted a short article on LinkedIn in which I shared ten purposeful provocations for association boards in 2021. This is Part II of a two-part series of columns in which I am expanding on the original article and including a set of next practices that association boards and chief staff executives can adopt to act on each provocation. (Please read Part I, which was posted in March.) This month, I will address the five provocations in the visual below.

10 Purposeful Provocations, Provocations 6 through 10

Provocation 6: Boards must focus on the essential outcomes of governing

Governing is a critical activity of board stewardship. Unfortunately, the primary training that most association boards receive concentrates on helping them fulfill governing’s traditional activities, including oversight and policymaking. Without question, these activities are necessary and important, but associations must not allow them to become their boards’ primary areas of focus.

Throughout The Turbulent Twenties, and especially during the uncertainty, volatility, and risk of the current “discontinuous next” our society is experiencing, association boards must devote maximum attention to the essential outcomes of governing captured in my definition of the term: governing is an intentional and dynamic process for enabling the coherence, capability, and continuity of the systems for which boards are responsible. This approach to governing ensures that interconnected systems 1) understand their reasons for being and the outcomes they intend to achieve (coherence), 2) can take effective action to make progress toward achieving those outcomes (capability) and 3) can thrive even as they confront the disruptive impact created by powerful forces of turbulence (continuity).

While association boards must emphasize high performance in every aspect of their voluntary service, they also must make the most effective use of their limited attention resources by developing a strong governing intent that prioritizes the essential outcomes of governing.

Next Practice: Associations can focus board attention on the essential outcomes of governing by shifting primary responsibility for governing’s traditional activities to committees and staff supported with technology.


Provocation 7: Boards must stand up for the future

Over many decades, association boards have waxed nostalgic for a past did not exist or existed only for a privileged few. Nevertheless, the natural human tendency to romanticize “the good old days” has led many boards to operate based on orthodox beliefs and protect the status quo within their associations and fields, while failing to prepare for the future. As a result, associations have had to bear the costs of governing debt, especially during the most difficult periods of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In this turbulent decade, it is critical for boards to accept the duty of foresight that animates the work of stewardship, governing, and foresight [SGF]. Associations need boards to direct their agency toward shaping a different and better future. This shift in orientation from protecting the past to shaping the future is an urgent matter not only for the thrivability of associations themselves, but for the stakeholders that associations will serve throughout this decade and beyond.

By acting on the duty of foresight and standing up for the future today, association boards can end the practice of shifting responsibility for the future to successors. Every current association director/officer should be asking themselves and their peers a fundamental question: if we don’t attend to the future starting right now, who will?

Next Practice: Associations can create a multilevel foresight timeline to help their boards better understand the forces of turbulence that will shape the remainder of this decade and beyond.


Provocation 8: Boards must step back from strategy

Among the most sacrosanct orthodox beliefs in association management is the need for boards to conduct strategic planning. This orthodoxy is untrue and unhelpful in two ways: 1) strategic planning is not a good use of association resources and 2) associations need their boards to play a more limited role in the work of strategy. Let’s address the second concern here.

To fulfill the duty of foresight, boards must invest themselves into deep and ongoing learning with the future. This complex and high-stakes work will require considerable attention and energy from individual directors/officers and from boards working together with a team dynamic. Given the immersive nature of the board’s foresight work, it is critical that they take a step back from hands-on involvement with strategy and entrust that work to other contributors.

In place of their boards, associations should invite under-40 stakeholders (from both inside and outside their current boundaries) to accept primary responsibility for shaping new value creation. By involving younger contributors directly in the strategy-making process, associations can realize the benefits of their diverse and future-oriented perspectives while sending a powerful message about the central role that under-40 stakeholders must play in setting the strategic direction of their associations today.

Next Practice: Associations can create strategy teams composed of diverse groups of under-40 stakeholders to collaborate with staff on crafting strategy and business models for new value creation.


Provocation 9: Boards must reject ideological division

Throughout their history, associations have had to confront the challenge of reconciling opposing political views to find common ground for action. In the last few years, however, profound ideological division—fueled by active efforts to spread damaging conspiracy theories and disinformation—has corroded our public discourse to such an extent that it can be difficult reach agreement on what constitutes trustworthy information.

As societal institutions that celebrate the value of expertise, share essential knowledge and support meaningful learning, the deep politicization of facts represents an existential threat to associations. Boards must categorically reject the toxic influence of ideological division in every phase of their associations’ activities and especially in their own critical work of stewardship, governing, and foresight.

Conducting civil and respectful dialogue will not be sufficient to avoid the continued politicization of facts. Instead, directors/officers should make clear and firm commitments to each other to prevent the detrimental influence of ideologically-inspired extremism from corrupting board conversations and decision-making.

Next Practice: Associations can help their boards design and implement a principle-centered context of collaboration and decision-making grounded in shared trust.


Provocation 10: Boards must sacrifice for their successors

The decisions that association boards will need to make throughout The Turbulent Twenties will require them to take self-sacrificing actions for the primary benefit of successors. The COVID-19 pandemic and the other forces of turbulence unfolding right now have made it painfully clear that all choices from this point forward will be hard. The more complicated question association boards will need to answer repeatedly is which hard choices also will be the correct choices for those who will follow them.

When directors/officers think of themselves and choose to operate as stewards, they acknowledge that they own neither their associations nor their board seats. Instead, they recognize that responsibility for both is entrusted to them on a temporary basis before it is passed on to their successors, just as their predecessors passed it on to them.

By prioritizing the long-term interests of successors—especially people they will never know personally—over their own short-term interests, directors/officers can demonstrate respect for and bring honor to the extraordinary privilege of their voluntary board service.

Next Practice: Associations can help their boards think more deeply about taking self-sacrificing actions by posing challenging questions about the enduring impact of today’s decisions on successors.


light bulb iconComing in June

Next month, I will begin a three-part series on the ethical dimensions of the board’s duty of foresight. This series will be a deep dive into how the generative integration of stewardship, governing, and foresight facilitates ethical decision-making for association boards.


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 Twitter @dutyofforesight. Follow Foresight First LLC on LinkedIn at foresightfirstonlinkedin.com.