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Board Dynamics

Expanding the Volunteer Leadership Pipeline

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To generate more diverse boards, associations need to provide better access to leadership opportunities. Progress might require tweaks to bylaws, but equally important is linking leadership skills to strategy, based on a clear sense of where the association wants to go.

In 2016, the Council of Landscape Architectural Registration Boards began addressing a problem with its board. The CLARB leadership pipeline was proving to be almost unworkably narrow: Its 12 board members were all required to be licensed landscape architects, with 18 months of active engagement with the association prior to a board run. Those restrictions limited the pool of nominees, its strategic skill sets, and its overall diversity.

“When your leadership pipeline can only come from your membership, and your membership is very small and it’s made up of later-career Caucasian men, your access to diversity is very limited,” said CLARB Chief Strategy Officer Veronica Meadows, CAE.

Addressing that challenge would ultimately require a change in CLARB’s bylaws. But before that, the association needed to have a conversation about how it would identify knowledge and diversity gaps in the board and the best ways to fill them. To that end, CLARB convened a pair of task forces to look at competencies that would be essential for a forward-looking board and to develop a structure that would include board members with those competencies, even if they weren’t part of CLARB’s typical pool of candidates.

That work resulted in a proposed bylaws change that would allow for appointed at-large board positions to address competency gaps. When the proposal was first put to a vote among membership in 2018, it failed narrowly—a lesson, Meadows says, about the importance of communicating the need for change to members. After CLARB leadership redoubled its efforts to communicate the benefits of the plan, the proposal passed unanimously in 2019.

“Our strategy helps us define the knowledge and expertise we’re looking for in leadership. Making that connection was huge.” — Veronica Meadows, CAE, Council of Landscape Architectural Registration Boards

The change on the board since then has been substantial. The number of board nominees rose from 20 to 35 between 2020 and 2022, Meadows says, and the average age of board members has decreased by 10 years since the bylaws change was adopted. The board is also approaching gender parity, and nearly half of its members are nonwhite.

Meadows credits the transformation not just to the bylaws change but to more aggressive work by the nominating committee to recruit board members with necessary competencies.

“We’re being more intentional around recruiting,” she said. “We’re recognizing that there are certain experiences and perspectives that are valuable, based on our strategy. Our strategy helps us define the knowledge and expertise we’re looking for in leadership. Making that connection was huge.”

Audits and Early Starts

To ensure a diverse talent pool when board nominations roll around, associations need to be constantly on the lookout for future leadership prospects. That process ought to begin practically from the time a person becomes a member, says Nikki Haton Shanks, CAE, a strategist at Association Laboratory Inc.

“Where it starts is individuals showing up and showing interest,” she said. “That can be attending the annual meeting for the first time, or being an award recipient, or reaching out individually to a staff member and saying, ‘I’m looking for opportunities, how do I get involved?’”

Shanks notes that associations need to pay close attention to the environment they’re creating for those potential early volunteers. Do they feel encouraged to reach out in the first place? Does the association have meaningful and flexible roles for them when they do? Shanks recommends that associations conduct an audit of their volunteer opportunities to surface biases and roadblocks that can stand in the way of a diverse leadership pipeline.

“A holistic review of all your potential opportunities and approaches is really beneficial,” she said.

That review, she adds, should consider what kinds of strategic and decision-making skills the volunteer roles require. Then, when it comes time for volunteers to advance to board work, nominating committees will have a clear picture of what competencies a potential board leader brings to the table. That process also lowers the incidence of tokenism, recruiting well-qualified, diverse candidates to the board, rather than elevating underprepared volunteers to high-end roles solely to fill diversity gaps.

“You don’t want to be selecting somebody because of a symbolic effort to visually indicate diversity, without any regard to their competence,” Shanks said. “In the context of ethical aspects of creating a diverse pipeline, that’s one area you need to make sure to address. You discount your other DEI efforts if you put someone on a committee for visibility’s sake only.”

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.

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