The Three Stewardship Imperatives of Fit-for-Purpose Association Boards: Part I

By Jeff De Cagna, AIMP FRSA FASAE • June 4, 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 (6/4/24), there are 2036 days remaining in The Turbulent Twenties, and 211 days until this decade’s midpoint on January 1, 2025.

With these two overlapping time frames becoming inexorably shorterand the impact of myriad social, technological, economic, environmental, and political [STEEP] factors and forces growing in intensityassociation boards must move immediately to become fit for purpose. To inspire our community’s most senior decision-makers to act with intention and meet this increasingly urgent challenge, my next three columns will explain the foundational imperatives association boards must adopt right away to build new capacity and confidence as they confront the powerful dynamics already shaping their associations’ futures for both better and worse.

Defining Stewardship

These three imperatives are situated in the context of stewardship. For association boards, stewardship is the shared commitment to leave the systems for which they are responsible better than how they found them for the benefit of stakeholders and successors. It is important to ground our understanding of stewardship in its three core elements:

  • AgencyAs their associations’ primary stewards, boards must direct their agency, i.e., the ability to choose the outcomes they want to pursue and act to achieve them, toward the future. Unfortunately, many association boards have surrendered their agency to detrimental orthodox beliefs—the deep-seated assumptions we make about how the world works—that are persistent barriers to intentional learning and effective decision-making.
  • VulnerabilityIn the struggle with the demands of their stewardship roles, board directors/officers may experience an understandable emotional reaction to their own vulnerability and that of the systems for which they are responsible. By demonstrating humility, curiosity, and empathy, board directors/officers can work together to ensure vulnerability is a shared burden Instead of each individual shouldering the considerable weight of stewardship alone.
  • WayfindingNavigating this turbulent decade’s next 2000+ days—not to mention The Threatening Thirties ahead—will require association boards to find their way without a reliable map. Boards cannot control the futures facing their organizations, nor can they “future-proof” their way out of them. Instead, boards must pursue ongoing discovery and embrace serendipity by remaining vigilant for emerging possibilities to shape different and better futures.

In this column, I will explore attention as responsibility, which is the first stewardship imperative. The other two imperatives—adaptation as renewal and anticipation as resilience—will be the subjects of Parts II and III respectively.

Imperative #1: Attention as Responsibility

The first stewardship imperative for fit-for-purpose boards is to regard their attention as the highest form of responsibility to the association.

In the words of Simone Weil, the 20th century French philosopher, “attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” This is a meaningful way to describe the admirable dedication of association directors/officers to voluntary service. Nevertheless, 21st century circumstances require fit-for-purpose boards to go further and make plain that inherent in the choice to serve on a fit-for-purpose association board today is the binding obligation to bring the maximum level of individual and collective attention possible to the work.

Association boards are overwhelmingly composed of highly successful and busy people, and our organizations must show respect and support as they seek to make the best use of their available time. In The Turbulent Twenties, however, it is board attention that is more essential, more limited, and more valuable than time. Without the sustained focus of irreplaceable human cognitive capabilities to the board’s work, there can be no fiduciary duty, thoughtful judgment, or effective decision-making. In short, there can be no agency.

Board attention is much more than an applied resource. It is vital to the enduring pursuit of intentional learning needed to build a robust understanding of a full range of plausible futures for the association, and develop a shared orientation to the board’s collective endeavor as stewards working on behalf of the industry or profession, stakeholders, and successors. Given the unfolding risks and threats facing every association, there is no higher form of responsibility than the full devotion of director/officer attention to the requirements of fit-for-purpose board service.

Making the Connection to Fit-for-Purpose Core Convictions and Habits of Mind

In three articles published in 2023, I offered six core convictions and six habits of mind for fit-for-purpose association boards. The stewardship imperative of attention as responsibility connects directly with the first two core convictions and habits of mind:

  • Accept the burdens of board service/expect collective responsibility—Attention as responsibility is an integral part of the core conviction of accepting the burdens of board service. Irrespective of how boards were composed in the past, serving on an association board today and in the years ahead cannot and must not be a vanity exercise or a reward for member loyalty. Every current and potential director/officer must make a clear-eyed assessment of their readiness to perform to the necessary standard, along with their willingness to do so in a collaborative manner with their board colleagues, staff partners, and other contributors. Board agency resides in the full group and the habit of mind of expecting collective responsibility includes focusing collective attention to ensure that underlying individual agendas do not override the group’s explicit commitment to collaborative action for the benefit of stakeholders and successors.
  • Focus on intentional learning/thinking and acting beyond orthodoxy—As described above, attention as responsibility is critical to sustaining the core conviction of intentional learning, which is a disciplined and rigorous process of sense-making, meaning-making, and decision-making. In each phase of this process, board directors/officers must concentrate their attention on exploring difficult questions, listening carefully to divergent perspectives and dissenting voices, and accepting disquieting information as a basis for action. Intentional learning also includes adopting the habit of mind of thinking and acting beyond orthodoxy. Orthodox beliefs must remain a primary locus of board attention to ensure they do not interfere with intentional learning by creating complacency, inducing inertia, or intensifying risk aversion, all of which compromise the board’s agency.

Next Column

In my next column, I will explore the second stewardship imperative for fit-for purpose association boards: adaptation as renewal. 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—beginning 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.