#ASAE21: Five Ways to Keep Your Board Strategic

Boards interact differently now, but they can still easily get lost in the weeds. Two strategy experts share tips for adjusting volunteers’ perspectives.

Volunteers may be getting better at handling remote meetings—research suggests board members are showing up more often—but some of the old challenges still apply. Chief among them are board members who have a habit of getting fixated on the operational business of the association. Are we sure that mailer for the upcoming conference doesn’t have too much blue in it? What kind of snacks are we going to have between sessions? And more, or sillier, or worse.

In their 2021 ASAE Annual Meeting session “Stay at 50,000 Feet! Keeping Your Volunteer Leaders Focused on the Big Picture,” Nikki Golden, CAE, and Nikki Haton Shanks, CAE, strategists at Association Laboratory, will discuss some of the ways volunteer groups go astray, and offer a few possible solutions. But as they pointed out in a conversation before the session, many of the potential problems can be addressed before they reach the board. Here are five of their suggestions:

Look at your overall volunteer structure. Unnecessary volunteer groups with no clear strategic purpose can create a culture where strategy and tactics can get tangled. “Take a look at what committees you have, and do some level of evaluation of whether or not those are the things you need volunteers for,” says Golden. “Make sure that you’re aligning your committees with your strategic goals, and they’re actually able to provide strategic direction on something.”

Assume everybody can use a refresher. Shanks and Golden agree that orientation is too often overlooked throughout an association’s network of volunteers; staff may incorrectly assume that just because somebody has served in a volunteer role before that they grasp the distinctions between strategy and operations. Don’t make that mistake. “You really have to set in place what the board will do, what the staff will do, and how they’ll work together,” Shanks says. “I think that’s often not stressed enough. And that can be what leads the board into focusing on tactical issues if it’s not covered as part of that orientation conversation.”

Keep the agenda strategic. Opening the floor to operational issues can swallow up precious board-meeting time in a hurry. To that end, Shanks says, board members should know from the schedule what they’re focusing on. “You’re setting up your agenda strategically so that you are able to cover the things that will lead to strategic decision making and that you have appropriate data to back up whatever decision making needs to take place. Having a good structure in place does help.” Or as Golden puts it: “Your leaders will look where you point.”

Give boards enough operational detail to help them feel informed. Boards don’t need to know every detail about technology procurement or membership marketing. But if they feel like they’re out of the loop, they’re more inclined to obsess over those details, says Golden. So staff needs to share enough information to inform them. “A breakdown of trust is often the reason that volunteer leaders get into the tactical weeds,” Golden says. “It’s easier for them to think about tactical issues if they don’t trust that the staff has the operations under control and there’s not that discussion [from staff] of ‘Operationally, here’s what we’re doing.’”

When in doubt, point to the strategic plan. Knowing how much information to share can be tricky. Golden suggests that the association’s strategic plan should provide the compass for what kinds of operational details need to be shared. “Use that as a guideline,” she says. “Look at what it says about what you’re trying to achieve as an organization. When you start getting further away from your overarching goals and objectives, that means you’re getting more tactical. Or just off-topic.”

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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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