When Transparency Is a Burden

Openness with members is a good thing. But when it comes to boards, according to one report, productivity is a function of privacy.

Associations are too transparent.

That’s not a common sentiment, of course. Most association experts will tell you that the key to engagement with members and the public is to be up-front about what you’re doing. And that’s generally true. But there’s the kind of transparency that builds bridges with members, and the kind of transparency that can stifle association volunteer leaders from doing their work.

That second type of transparency is the focus of “The Role of Transparency in Association Governance,” a recent paper by Anne M. Cordes, CAE, Mark Engle, CAE, FASAE, and Jed R. Mandel. In the paper, the three look at recent calls for transparency and suggest that they overstep their bounds in some cases: board meetings that are open to all members, minutes that detail every back and forth among volunteers. In addition to needlessly exposing the association to legal scrutiny, keeping the doors wide open can stifle the board’s strategic work.

“Organizations that consistently achieve the most innovative, productive, and thoughtful work from their employees,” they write, “use boundaries like physical barriers around work groups—zones of attention—to avoid exposing every little action to the scrutiny of a crowd and defined periods of experimentation—zones of time—to give employees time to prepare for and experiment within specified windows of privacy.” And when those deliberations are public instead of private, opportunities for stifling critiques and playing to constituencies can take over.

It’s almost as though [board members are] being viewed as candidates for government.

“Some of [the confusion over transparency] is false understanding of the legalities,” says Engle, a principal with Association Management Center. “But some of it’s performance-driven. We’ve seen grandstanding and other bad behavior in public settings and the dynamics around what drives organizational performance. That’s antithetical in our eyes.”

Even so, it’s not hard for an association to feel steamrolled by vocal members in the name of transparency. Cordes, a consultant on governance and strategy with AMC, recalls one association that was pressuring board members to reveal their positions on issues publicly—a notion that runs counter to their role of representing the best interests of the association, not themselves. “It’s almost as though they’re being viewed as candidates for government,” she says.

To be clear: Nobody is advocating that boards clam up completely about their activities. But, Engle and Cordes say, they do need to be clear with their members about the duties they have as a board—one of which is to speak in one voice about the decisions they arrive at. And, just as important, they need to present themselves as open to feedback on issues outside of board deliberations. Associations, Cordes says, need to be “asking as many questions and providing as many forums to learn from the members as possible. So then members know on some gut level that their interests are being heard and incorporated in board decision making.”

One way to do that, Engle says, is to host town halls for members, perhaps at annual conferences, to ensure that those concerns are heard, and address misconceptions. Another, he says, is to build “generative sessions” into board meetings that are built around the board members’ environmental scans of the industry. “Every time the board is at least together face-to-face they should have a block of time they are looking at environmental factors,” he says. “What is going on in your practice setting? What are the emerging issues and how do you feel about them? Being able to have that capacity to analyze data, who is saying what, and how we evaluate it.”

Associations largely understand this. Cordes points out that the days of association boards being locked away in an ivory tower and entirely refusing input from members are pretty much over. But by broadening the range of feedback they solicit, they can promote a “good” transparency that can blunt “bad” transparency—those huffy demands that each board member answer for their every action at every meeting.  “What we’re advocating is that the board communicate clearly what they welcome input—on products, from readers of the journal, from attendees at conferences—and that they are using the feedback from members in their decision making,” Cordes says.

What do you do to make clear to your members the lines that you draw about transparency at your association? Share your experiences in the comments.


Mark Athitakis

By 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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