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How do you build great board relationships? Four case studies offer solutions to familiar conflicts of authority.

More associations, stiff competition for members and financing, and increasing demand for accountability have loosed a flood-stage tide of expectations of the association governing board. In the last three years, the National Center for Nonprofit Boards, Washington, D.C., has received a growing number of requests from association staff and volunteer leaders concerned about making their boards more effective. Chief executives expect more help from board members in building their associations. Board members, in turn, expect more help in clarifying their multiple responsibilities and making wise decisions.

With that tide of expectations comes a rising sense of frustration as board and staff work together. The line between policy and administration is often murky. Board members frequently assume their positions without knowing what they are supposed to do. Many men and women become chief staff officers (CSOs) without prior experience working with a governing body. And attention to board development is often deferred until a crisis erupts or is dismissed altogether.

Why are some associations more successful in building a strong board-staff team? What is the formula for a healthy partnership between the chief staff officer and his or her board? Given the diversity of the association world, it's impossible to generalize and foolish to dispense neat formulas for success. The staff-driven association has different needs than the volunteer-driven association. Other variables that influence the role and effectiveness of the governing board include the composition of the board; how new board members are selected; the association's developmental stage; income and staff size; and perhaps most important, the leadership style of the CSO and the chief volunteer officer--and the chemistry between them.

In the following case studies, my brief analyses diagnose governance dilemmas, distinguishing symptoms from underlying causes. They are composites, drawn from actual examples shared by association leaders at workshops conducted by the National Center for Nonprofit Boards. The names of the individuals and associations are fictional.

One: With or without vote?

John Smith recently moved from a professional society, where as CSO he served as a voting member of the board, to another association that has never authorized the CSO to serve on the board with vote. Now that Smith has been in his new position for a year, he wants very much to become a voting member of the board of directors. His efforts to amend the bylaws have been resisted by Betty Lin, the board chair, and other members.

At some associations, a CSO with vote is traditional. Proponents argue that it * symbolizes that the CSO and board members are peers; * gives the CSO more credibility to be perceived as a full-fledged member of the board; and * enhances the CSO's decision-making authority.

Critics charge that it * blurs the line between policy and administration; * places the chief executive in the precarious position of casting the deciding vote on a controversial issue; and * erodes the clarity of the CSO's role as the association's chief administrator.

The practice itself is less significant than the underlying issues. The key question in this case is, what is the motive for Smith's push to become a voting member of his board.

Does he want a symbolic gesture of partnership with the board? Will it enhance his credibility? Will it make him more effective as chief executive? And what is behind Chair Lin's resistance? Does it reflect her lack of confidence in Smith or her commitment to the separation of policymaking and administration?

There is no right or wrong answer. A survey of associations where the CSO serves on the board with vote would probably reveal satisfaction with the practice. On the other hand, it is highly unlikely that CSOs rely on voting rights to exercise authority. Here are the key issues that Smith and Lin might consider in resolving their differences.

First, does the board currently delegate the authority Smith needs to administer the association successfully?

If not, will serving on the board with vote deliver that authority? Other ways that Smith might enlist authority are serving on the board ex officio and without vote, inviting the board to help revise his job description, or sharing his concerns candidly with the chair or another appropriate board member.

Missing here is a clear understanding of the responsibilities of executive director and board: The dictum that a board should make policy and the chief executive administer it is much clearer in theory than in practice. Whether or not Smith gains a voting seat, he needs to be able to contribute to policy decisions with the board's blessing.

Second, what will giving the chief executive a place on the board provide that he does not already have?

Will Smith have to pay for the honor by losing some clarity of function that he previously had, or will it strengthen his role? This conflict is a good opportunity for the CSO, the chair, and the board to discuss the best way for the board to give Smith appropriate authority and flexibility. Without a climate of mutual trust and support between board and CSO, the relationship may need more than a change in the bylaws to improve.

Smith could convert the conflict into a constructive review of his role by encouraging an assessment of his performance along with the board's. In Board Assessment of the Chief Executive: A Responsibility Essential to Good Governance, published by the National Center for Nonprofit Boards, author John Nason observes that the immediate purpose of executive assessment "is to appraise the effectiveness of the chief executive's performance and thereby to strengthen and support the chief executive."

Nason argues, "Although the performance of the chief executive is front and center in any assessment, it is not the whole story . . . . Board members . . . need periodically to take an honest and hard look at themselves. They rather than the chief executive may be the cause of management trouble. New board members sometimes have different views of the scope and purpose of the organization from those held by older members. The board needs to reconcile these differences before issuing marching orders to the chief executive."

Two: Continuing board education

For the first time, the Association of Wildlife Artists (AWA) has authorized for membership on its board individuals who are not members of the association. Two of the most prominent members in this category recently resigned before the end of their first term. While both claim the press of other commitments as the primary reason, Paul Gonzales confides to the chief staff officer that both he and his colleague are disillusioned with their experience as AWA board members. Gonzales observes that he agreed to join the board with high hopes of becoming a productive member by applying his expertise as a marketing executive to the organization. But he has seen no real opportunity to contribute.

The resignation of these two members may reveal more fundamental problems than lack of board education. Nevertheless, AWA hasn't paid enough attention to orienting and deploying these volunteers. While new board members may take several months to acclimate, if the association does not engage them in meaningful assignments soon after they join the board, it may consistently lose good people.

How can AWA's chief staff officer and board president engage Gonzales more actively in the work of the association? 1. Hold an orientation just prior to his first meeting or earlier as a separate event. Explain to him the work of the association, the role of the board, and the expectations of individual members. 2. Assign an experienced board member to mentor Gonzales during his first year. He'll be comforted by the attention of a more experienced member who will take time to show him the ropes, find out how he is feeling about his new membership, and be available for basic questions about board or association practices, policies, and traditions. 3. Take time to determine what committee he would most like to serve on to make the best use of his interests and expertise. Give Gonzales a description of each committee and invite him to choose, or ask the chair of the most appropriate committee to call Gonzales and invite him to join. If Gonzales was chosen because of his marketing expertise, how can AWA take advantage of this? 4. Have the CSO and the board chair communicate with him between board meetings to exchange ideas. 5. Have him observe or participate directly in AWA programs, such as the annual conference, special meetings, or other appropriate events or projects.

Three: Using advisory committees

The development advisory council of the Association of Local Health Officers (ALHO) was established to help raise money for the association. The corporate managers, professional development officers, and private hospital administrators who serve on this council have added visibility and support to the association. Recently the council scored a big win by raising new foundation and corporation funds to finance a major new association program devoted to public education on preventive programs for good health.

After three years of service, many council members feel overworked and underappreciated. One asks, "If we're doing such a great job, why aren't we being asked to serve on the governing board?"

If the members of the ALHO advisory council are not professional local health officers or members of the association, they may not be eligible for membership on the governing board. The ALHO board and CSO may well decide that this policy should be changed, since several council members are excellent candidates for board service. Or they may consider inviting individual members to serve on board committees without vote.

Advisory service can be a wonderful proving ground for governing board service. But as a practical matter, individuals on ALHO's council may be neither eligible nor qualified to serve on the governing board. ALHO needs to consider whether it keeps council members on too long or overworks them. In what specific ways can the chief executive establish a strong relationship with an effective advisory committee? 1. Discuss with the board inviting the advisory committee chair to serve as a voting or nonvoting board or committee member. This would help better communication between both groups and symbolize the council's value to the association. 2. Assess whether staff provides adequate support for the advisory committee. Do committee members get the kind of information they need? Are their efforts properly acknowledged? 3. Invite the committee chair to report at governing board meetings. Regular and direct communication will give every board member an opportunity to learn about the work of the advisory committee. 4. Invite members of the advisory committee to attend portions of individual board meetings, or plan social activities that allow members of both groups to meet informally. 5. Formally recognize members when their terms end.

Four: Policy versus administration

Executive director Janet Jones is appalled when the new president of her association asks to see her specific recommendations for next year's staff salary increases. The chief volunteer officers she has worked with in the past never requested this information, and Jones is concerned that this new practice might invite board interference in her domain.

Jones's anxiety is understandable. She is in the best position to judge the salary increases that individual staffers deserve. The new association president could well have that surrogate-administrator style. This may be the first of many attempts to meddle in management and undermine Janet's authority as chief executive.

On the other hand, the board is entitled to approve and review policies on allocating resources for staff salaries and benefits. In addition to approving the aggregate salary increases recommended in the annual budget, shouldn't the board president be entitled to information on specific budget expenditures? If Jones shares the information with her president, the key issue will be in how he responds to this administrative matter.

Before labeling the president a micromanager, Jones may discover one or more of the following reasons for his request:

* He has recent experience as board president of a smaller, more volunteer-driven organization where he was actively engaged in helping the part-time CSO with salary reviews. * He wants to be informed about key personnel costs for the association and understand the framework within which salary decisions are made. * And he wants to be sure he has the information to back Jones's decisions at the next board meeting. He anticipates individual board members will contest any increase in staff salaries in light of the budget deficit.

While the conventional wisdom is for the board to keep its nose in administration so it can keep its fingers out, there is no precise formula for what constitutes policy and administration. This distinction relates to where an association is in its life cycle, what the tradition of decision making has been, and how the chief staff and chief volunteer officers work together.

A purely administrative item can become a board issue for legitimate reasons. On the other hand, the board president would inappropriately insist on substituting his judgment on individual salary recommendations for Jones's. If this occurs, Jones may use this as an opportunity to thank the president for his input and remind him that this is one of many decisions the board pays her to make.

Investing in board development

For too long, literature on boards and advice in the training room has been confined to quick prescriptions and formulaic incantations about how to make a good board. Good governance is more art than science because ultimately one deals more with people--with different expectations, experiences, and attitudes--than with bylaws, policies, or procedures. Building a board takes more than wooing the right kinds of people. It's an ongoing process, not a single transformational event. An association's governance needs also change as it moves through its life cycle. Chief staff officers and volunteer leaders who recognize the need to invest in the orientation, continuing education, and periodic assessment of their boards will be in the best position to weather governance passages.

Nancy R. Axelrod is executive director of the National Center for Nonprofit Boards, Washington, D.C.
COPYRIGHT 1991 American Society of Association Executives
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:includes related article; creating a harmonious relationship between the boards of directors and staff
Author:Axelrod, Nancy R.
Publication:Association Management
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Oct 1, 1991
Previous Article:Media see record attendance, positive change.
Next Article:Fact and fiction.

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