Can Staff and Boards Work Together?

The best advice is to keep them separate. But in a time of transition, one CEO found value in a collective exercise.

The rules about leading staff and boards at associations are pretty clear. In short, stay in your lane.

Volunteer leaders at an association set the strategic direction for the organization; staff handles implementation. Messing with that arrangement only sows confusion. Board members get comfortable recruiting staffers for tasks without the CEO’s knowledge; staff fusses over strategic matters instead of putting their emphasis on day-to-day operations.

Everybody sees a different part of the membership-organization elephant.

So those boundaries are good ones. But there’s also something to be said for letting staff and volunteer leaders understand each other beyond the occasional staff-board lunch or other casual mixer. If you, as an executive, really want both groups to understand the importance of their roles, getting them together can be a valuable experience.

That’s something that J Thomas Forbes decided to try when he became CEO of the Indiana University Alumni Association in 2010. As a new leader, he wanted his staff and volunteer leaders to rethink how they were going about their plan of work. Having been used to efficiency-driven environments in the corporate sector, the association’s activities at first felt like a “random circus,” he says.

Part of the problem was that the association had a host of activities—fundraisers, meetings, outreach efforts, game-day tailgates—that were all characterized as must-do, but without much thinking about why they were perceived that way.

“I was thinking, how do I get my arms around all these things we’re doing on our calendar?” Forbes says. “And also, how do we collectively get on the same page?”

He borrowed the answer to that question from the web design world and created a card-sort exercise: He put every event on the association’s calendar on an index card and asked his staff and volunteer leadership team together to sort them into categories that seemed to make the most sense.

“The process was really revealing, because people began to realize how much we did,” he says. “Everybody sees a different part of the membership-organization elephant. Some people were like, ‘Wow, I didn’t know we did this,’ or ‘Wow, I don’t know what that is.’ Somebody said, ‘How can we sustain all this?’”

Excellent question—which speaks to the ultimate value of the exercise. It gave the board an opportunity to comprehend the organization’s work in the aggregate, and the staff got a chance to grasp where activities didn’t coincide with mission.

“It helped volunteers see that there was more going on than just their piece of a chapter group or their school-based constituent society or affinity group,” Forbes says. “And for staff, I think it helped them realize how much they were operating in response mode and had to begin to think about how individual events or volunteer groups fit into something larger and more strategic.”

In the years since, he says, that experience has helped the organization “move from being event-driven to initiative-driven.” Activities are considered through the lens of whether they serve revenue, philanthropic, or engagement goals. And that’s led the association to abandon some of those allegedly “must-do” activities—like tailgate events that attracted plenty of attendees but generated low engagement and low financial return.

Exercises like the one Forbes introduced aren’t for every association. IUAA was in a leadership transition and also had a complicated governance model—a fiduciary board plus chapter leaders and a house-of-delegates-style group of volunteer leaders—where comprehension of roles and responsibilities is more challenging. And there’s no substitute for good orientation, on either the staff or volunteer side, which doesn’t necessitate getting groups together. But in cases where the grasp of mission seems to have slipped, making the activities around that mission tangible can go a long way toward keeping both groups in alignment.

“It helped us become more alumni-centric and outcome-oriented,” Forbes says. “That leads to a way to have conversations about prioritization and allows you to really focus on talent management—both staff and volunteer talent. It allowed us to kind of clarify and condense things to those that help us deliver on our mission.”

How have you had staff and volunteer leaders work together in your association? Share your experiences in the comments.

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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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