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

By Jeff De Cagna, AIMP FRSA FASAE • June 20, 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 (6/20/24), there are 2020 days remaining in The Turbulent Twenties, and 195 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, this series of 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.

The Vulnerability of Stewardship

In Part I of this series, I provided my definition of stewardship for fit-for-purpose association boards: 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. In addition, I explained the three core elements of stewardship—agency, vulnerability, and wayfinding. As a reminder, this is what I wrote in Part I about vulnerability in stewardship:

In 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.

This column will explore adaptation as renewal, which is the second stewardship imperative, and its connection to the core element of vulnerability.

Imperative #2: Adaptation as Renewal

The second stewardship imperative for fit-for-purpose boards is to pursue adaptation as a continuous process of individual, collective, and organizational renewal.

As The Turbulent Twenties proceed, association boards must prepare themselves and their organizations for increased systemic upheaval. The threats currently facing associations, our country, and our world include deep social deterioration, expanding technological surrender, worsening economic inequality/exploitation, the real-world possibility of environmental collapse, and escalating political chaos. These serious forces of upheaval combine to create substantial instability for associations and make every association community stakeholder more vulnerable going forward.

To navigate through these unforgiving conditions, fit-for-purpose boards must collaborate with their staff partners and other key contributors to prioritize the comprehensive and consistent adaptation of their organizations. The complex and wide-ranging nature of the problems that must be confronted demands a holistic and learning-centered approach that will enable associations to make a beneficial impact in addressing them while controlling organizational risk exposure and reducing the sense of vulnerability among board directors/officers who will have to make exceptionally tough decisions at every turn.

The pursuit of sustained adaptation creates a powerful opportunity for associations to renew themselves and our community’s boards for the future. Adaptation as renewal will make it possible for associations to inject fresh energy and imagination into their work, including by imbuing fit-for-purpose board service with a greater sense of meaning and purpose. Through the adaptation as renewal stewardship imperative, associations can discard any long-standing orthodox deference to preserving the status quo and act to fulfill their critical roles as 21st century societal institutions.

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 adaptation as renewal connects directly with the second two core convictions and habits of mind:

  • Exercise care for others/safeguarding stakeholder and successor humanityThe typical expression of care in board work comes in the form of a legal requirement codified in the board’s fiduciary duty of care. In a world of systemic upheaval, however, fit-for-purpose boards must adopt a broader perspective on care grounded in empathy for and solidarity with one another and the many other vulnerable human stakeholders their associations serve today and the successors they wish to serve in the future. Adaptation as renewal demands that association boards recognize how the factors and forces driving upheaval place more human lives in harm’s way every day, and challenges them to act to safeguard those human futures. Through the consequential sacrifices they make in the present with the creation of long-term benefit in mind, fit-for-purpose association boards demonstrate that the selfless exercise of care for others is an essential good.
  • Craft positive-sum outcomes/integrating interdependent stewardshipThe orthodox beliefs of leadership are often more concerned with who wins and who loses in every situation, a way of thinking that perpetuates damaging vulnerability for everyone involved. Fit-for-purpose association boards, however, reject zero-sum thinking and pursue adaptation as renewal to focus their collective attention on actively crafting positive-sum outcomes for the benefit of stakeholders and successors. Adaptation as renewal helps fit-for-purpose boards lessen the inherent vulnerability of inclusive and interdependent stewardship while bolstering their legitimacy at a time of institutional decline. This imperative also serves as an essential repudiation of our community’s highly-detrimental orthodox beliefs around “relevance” that only interfere with intentional learning and injure board decision-making for the future.

Next Column

In the final column of this series, I will explore the third stewardship imperative for fit-for purpose association boards: anticipation as resilience. 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.