What Association Governance Needs in 2021

Research shows that boards are busier than ever now, but working from a distance has created new pressure to make all of that effort effective.

These are busy times for boards. Whenever I’ve spoken to association executives in the past year about how their boards have been doing during the pandemic, the common theme has been more. More phone calls and Zoom meetings. More stress about responses. And more attention to what strategies will help their associations move forward in a tough time.

A new survey [PDF] from the Global Network of Director Institutes, in collaboration with the National Association of Corporate Directors, puts some hard numbers behind the anecdotes. But the numbers also show that there are still some challenges left to take care of, even if boards are busier.

Less than half of board members found virtual meetings as effective as in-person ones.

The GNDI survey, based on responses from 2,000 corporate directors around the world, found that two-thirds of board members were spending 50 percent more time on board service—or more. Not surprisingly, much of this new effort has been COVID-19 related: Among the challenges that a substantive number of board members highlighted are the pandemic’s effect on the operating environment (56 percent) and virtual meetings (39 percent).

But while board members have been learning to adapt to virtual strategy meetings, they’re also feeling strained by them. The GNDI survey found that just less than half of board members (49 percent) found virtual meetings as effective as in-person ones. Those board members seem to be missing the kinds of connection a Zoom session can’t provide: By a wide margin, the biggest challenge respondents said virtual meetings presented was “losing nonverbal communication.” And substantial proportions of board members cited issues with technology (36 percent) and participation from each director (30 percent).

Associations have been doing their level best at putting together virtual board meetings that are reasonable facsimiles of a real event. But the numbers suggest that the extra board time is part of a running-to-stand-still scenario, where the additional time investment isn’t so much improving the board as it is allowing it to maintain past levels of engagement.

Indeed, there are some familiar disruptions to good governance at associations during COVID. According to Association Laboratory’s latest Looking Forward report, based on a survey of more than 600 association professionals, respondents cited as their top challenges recruiting diverse board members (41 percent), staying future-focused (40 percent), and attracting younger volunteers (39 percent). Virtual boards may not be causing new problems, but they’re not eradicating old ones.

What to do? There are reasons to hope that vaccinations will open up opportunities to meet this summer and fall, especially for small-group events like board retreats. But hybrid meetings may be common for a while. On a recent call with association executives, Tecker International’s Glenn Tecker suggested that leaders need to learn new ways to handle decision making in a hybrid environment. Board work based on long-distance discussions has its benefits—it can potentially build in more time to ruminate on issues. But without face-to-face engagement, he said, leaders run the risk of letting decisions be made in isolation, and the urgency of certain issues can feel diminished when they’re discussed remotely.

The GNDI report suggests that future board meetings may need to be more bite-sized “to take advantage of the unique benefits that virtual meetings may offer. This may mean meeting more often with management teams for shorter and more-frequent real-time updates, reserving in-person meetings for specific board activities, such as onboarding or tabletop exercises, and distributing full-board and committee meetings across more, but shorter, meetings.”

There are no doubt more ideas to consider—please share yours in the comments. Board members have demonstrated a willingness to put more time in. The next step is to make sure that time is well spent.

(megaflopp/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

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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