Effective Management

The Advantages—and Realities—of a Board Election Overhaul

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If you’re thinking about changing how you conduct board elections, be sure you have very good reasons. No one likes to feel like they are losing power or control, so be sure to weigh the benefits of the overhaul and communicate them effectively to stakeholders.

Last year, the American Association of Neuroscience Nurses successfully completed one of the most sensitive governance initiatives an association can undertake: It updated its board election process from a competitive election to a fully appointed slate. The transition took about six years and involved several steps, but according to AANN Executive Director Leah Zamora, CAE, it was worth it. The goal was to look at the board strategically, get the right people at the table, and move the organization forward.

Legacy election processes often result in a board that doesn’t fully reflect the organization’s many stakeholders. According to new DEI research developed by Trifecta Research Group for the ASAE Research Foundation, the vast majority of board members are white males between the ages of 30 and 59.

In addition, in many organizations, people are required to move up through the volunteer ranks before obtaining a board seat. This often leads to a board populated with members who are at the same point in their career and who have served the organization for a long time, but who are not necessarily representative of the membership.

“How do we get representation of the membership with a person who maybe doesn’t see themselves on a board but is a voice we need in that board seat? If we’re doing a competitive election, that’s never going to happen,” Zamora said.

For example, a nurse who lives in a small town and works at the community hospital is a much better representation of AANN’s membership. The association’s shift to a fully appointed slate has provided an opportunity for candidates who could never beat out a big name from a larger institution.

“How do we get representation of the membership with a person who maybe doesn’t see themselves on a board but is a voice we need in that board seat?” — Leah Zamora, CAE, American Association of Neuroscience Nurses

“The composition of our board is changing, and changing for the better,” Zamora said.

Building a more inclusive and diverse board that is more representative of the membership means “getting a voice that tells us what the membership needs,” Zamora said. “We don’t always know what they need. Sometimes we tell them what they need.”

Having people on the board with different views and perspectives opens the conversation to more ideas and more diverse opportunities to develop products, certifications, and assessments, especially for healthcare professionals. “You get a boots-on-the-ground voice at the table,” Zamora said.

For AANN, that means more information from newer nurses who are caring for patients and seeing the direct needs of nurses. “As we get younger, more diverse people with maybe less experience on our boards, we get in touch with what our members’ needs actually are,” Zamora said.

Tread Carefully

However, before overhauling a board election process, tread carefully. “Board elections are very emotional topics for members, and they see their role in elections as a right of membership,” said Paula Goedert, a partner at the law firm Barnes and Thornburg, LLC. “And any attempt to lessen their role is seen as a power grab by current leaders.”

When a member pays for an association membership, they expect to have a voice in its governance, Goedert notes. “When that role is diminished, it changes the relationship with the association, and the member views it more as a vendor rather than a club where they have an important role to play,” she said.

To make the revamp of an election process more palatable to the broader membership, Goedert recommends having a board committee map out the planned changes and then giving members times to study and understand them. If the CEO just announces a change with no earlier communication, there will likely be member pushback.

“You have to make very certain that you’re doing this for a reason, and that it’s a reason that will resonate with people,” Goedert said. Look at the existing election process and see if it’s broken. Is it causing tension? Is it too expensive, inconvenient, unwieldy? Ultimately, the purpose and advantage of changing the process should be to address those issues.

Lisa Boylan

Lisa Boylan is a senior editor of Associations Now.

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