Board Smarts: Turning the Page

By / Aug 3, 2015 (Jay Mantri/Stocksnap)
In some cases [first-year board members] were actually told that they weren’t to question or comment during meetings.

A new read on leadership helped literacy group make a big shift.

In 2013, the International Reading Association made a small but momentous decision, changing its name to the International Literacy Association. The shift was more than just cosmetic: As Executive Director Marcie Craig Post says, it reflects a new focus from supporting literacy professionals to ending illiteracy.

Doing that, she says, required a lot of behind-the-scenes work with the board after her arrival in 2012. In those early days, the perception of board service was that it was a feather in one’s cap rather than a role steering the ­association. “If we didn’t shift our perception organization-wide of what it means to be a board member, none of this was going to happen,” she says.

To get the 12-person board to start owning its decisions, Post set out to address a structure and culture that all but silenced newcomers. “In some cases [first-year board members] were actually told that they weren’t to question or comment during meetings,” says Post. Leadership assignments favored longer-tenured members, creating an unhelpful hierarchy.

That structure was done away with, and ILA ultimately dispensed with its executive committee, which had made decision making redundant and divisive. “Sitting board members were worried that there was a filtering of information [by the executive committee] and that by the time the board meeting came around, certain things were already done deals,” she says. “And that was true in some cases. That’s exactly what was happening.”

Next, Post encouraged the board to start talking more often, adding monthly check-ins on top of its quarterly meetings. That helped board members spend more time communicating strategically and kept them on top of data relevant to the association’s progress. By the time the discussion of the name and mission change came around, it was less of a mountain to climb—and one that the board could handle itself rather than leave to a resolution voted on by the association’s larger delegates assembly.

The board’s vote in favor of the change generated some pushback from members who wanted more input. But Post says she believes the board was best equipped to make the decision—and unlike in the past when it walked back on controversial moves, it stood firm this time. She attributes that to the board quickly rethinking its role and taking action to work collectively.

“We started by having the board openly discuss its work, by taking the time to ask, ‘What is our job as a board? What are we here to do? What are our responsibilities to ILA?’ ” says Post. “It starts there.”

Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. More »


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