Boards and Committees Leading Through Change

The pandemic revealed how important committee and board leadership is to navigating change.

By Andrew Conner


Strong leadership requires fast and effective responses in the face of change — whether that’s navigating the pandemic and the fight for racial equity or any of the other myriad challenges that arise for associations.

Given the tumultuous 2020, many associations looked at and redefined their approach to governance strategies and structures. In general, the associations that were more flexible, particularly with the board and committees that are leading the association’s direction, could better adapt to all these new changes.

Even as the pandemic appears to wane, the need to create an effective governance structure will persist. In particular, many associations are grappling with the following three areas: pursuing diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives, reexamining the committee structure and purview, and tackling issues associated with the rise of virtual and free content. Strong governance can lead the way.

The Right Team

Looking at board and committee structure and overall skill competencies has been on associations’ radar for years. DEI has especially become more important in light of last year’s events — and an area where committees can play a pivotal role in navigating change.

“I think all of the trends have been accelerated by the pandemic,” says Erin Volland, MPA, CAE, senior consultant at Association Management Center. “Associations were already starting to look at ways to increase diversity. For example, if you have popular elections, is that the best way to get more members involved? Some organizations are already changing that and looking at leadership or development committee appointments instead.”

DEI has especially become more important in light of last year’s events — and an area where committees can play a pivotal role in navigating change.

For associations that want to expand membership in a more diverse, inclusive environment, aligning those goals with the competencies of board and committee staff and the overall organization strategy is necessary.

“Where does your association want to go in the next five years?” asks Volland. “Do you want to make significant changes in how you do business or in the stakeholders that are being served? If you do, do you have the right competencies on the board and in your committees to move that forward?”

One way to address this is to look at the committee selection process. Sometimes that process can be overly political and therefore less strategic. Volland suggests identifying the goals of your organization, then looking for people who fit the skills you need to achieve those goals rather than picking the person and fitting them into the position. She points to often-overlooked younger members as an example: “Are you looking at the early career members?” she asks. “These are people who maybe haven’t done their 20 years of service in the association, but they might have a skill or competency that isn’t showing up in your leadership and could prove to be an asset.”

Whether it is looking at younger members of the organization, or diversity in race, gender or ethnicity, or even diversity in things like how members practice their profession or rural members vs. urban members, associations need to analyze unique needs and then determine which skills and competencies they value in members. From there, identify gaps in the board and committees with regard to these needed skills and competencies, and find candidates to fill those gaps. This is where DEI and association strategy should connect. 

One trend I’ve seen is toward using more work groups and task forces, which gets committees out of the bylaws.” — Erin Volland, MPA, CAE, senior consultant, Association Management Center

“Diversity — not just diversity in demographics — is a goal of almost all of the associations I work with,” says Volland. “Associations are looking at their future and asking: Do our programs align with where our members are going? Do we have people that understand what the practice setting is going to look like and what the members are going to need to succeed in 10 to 15 years?” 

Defining diversity for an organization in this way will pay dividends down the road.

“I can’t think of an association we’re working with that doesn’t see the value of continuing to move faster in that direction, but they’re also doing the work to define what that means for their profession,” says Volland. “What are the diverse pieces of their profession or membership that might look different from other associations?”

Moving Quickly

When examining the flexibility of an association, it helps to start at the top.

“I think a lot of what we’re seeing is organizations looking at how authority is distributed: What can the board do? If they have a house of delegates, what can they do? What can a committee actually do with the charges and delegation the board has given them?” Volland says. “We’ve seen quite a few associations take a hard look at that.”

Volland explains that associations with more traditional governance structures were in a tougher position. “Some associations have struggled because the authority given in their organizing documents is given to their largest body — maybe a house of delegates,” she says. “And that can hamstring the board or other committees that are trying to move quickly and respond.”

In her work with her clients, Volland has also had discussions with associations about getting buy-in from the board on more flexible and adaptable procedures — so committees are given more space to operate effectively on their own. She notes that organizations that had already taken these steps prior to the pandemic were better positioned to respond to it.

“Not all associations that we deal with had to go through this process,” Volland says. “And in associations where the board already has authority to make decisions — or could delegate it to committees and task forces — they didn’t really struggle. If they had to cancel their annual meeting, it was a board decision, and that makes it significantly easier.”

By contrast, associations that require more complicated approval, such as from a house of delegates, struggled with making quick decisions in light of the pandemic. Volland expects that this experience will push many associations that may have more traditional structures to adopt more flexible procedures.

“I definitely think associations that have had a direct experience, especially canceling an in-person meeting, are taking a hard look at their bylaws and structure,” Volland says. “I think they’re also going to look at things like competencies of people on their board or their committees. So, going beyond the authority and ‘Can we do it?’ to ‘Do we have the right people to do it, and do we have the right structure?’”

Many associations learned this lesson prior to the pandemic. “One trend I’ve seen is toward using more work groups and task forces, which gets committees out of the bylaws,” says Volland. “Flexible associations realized that just because the bylaws say you can have a committee, if they have nothing to do, it’s not helpful. So I’ve seen more associations move to the usage of task forces.”

Using work groups or task forces instead of committees also helps associations take advantage of microvolunteerism, or the idea that the less you ask of volunteers, the better. “[Irrespective of the pandemic,] trends are moving toward shorter, more targeted experiences,” Volland says. “Depending on where people are in their life and their work, a less-demanding task force position may be a better fit for some people than a full year on the board or on a committee. If they’re interested, it’s better to get that person involved in some capacity now because you don’t want to lose that.”

How to Leverage Engagement

One major association trend that has come out of the pandemic is the increase of virtual meetings and events. While in-person conferences will eventually return, many may return with a virtual component, which is probably a good thing. Removing the barriers of meeting in a physical space allows you to attract a wider audience. Many associations that had in-person events that used to draw a couple hundred people were drawing thousands online. However, does that mean those people are more engaged in committees and with the association at large?

For associations that may be thinking about permanent changes that lean toward more open, free and virtual offerings, Volland recommends leaders carefully consider the effectiveness. Your education committee, education task forces, annual meeting committees and board should all be taking a hard look at conversion, Volland says. “Are we getting people into leadership because we’ve expanded our offerings?” she asks. “Are we increasing interest? Are we getting new members? Are people who may have dropped membership coming back? I think now [that the pandemic is waning,] associations will have time to take a breath and start looking at what they’ve done over the pandemic and ask, ‘Did this help us?’”

Many associations that had in-person events that used to draw a couple hundred people were drawing thousands online. However, does that mean those people are more engaged in committees and with the association at large?

Volland believes that if, after analyzing the data from the past year, associations see increased engagement, they will make many of these changes permanent. “If they’re seeing more members join or apply to be on committees or task forces, I think associations will be much more willing to keep some of the practices they have been offering during the pandemic, such as offering content to members and non-members.”

However, Volland hasn’t yet seen a solid connection between this type of member engagement — free content or increased access to events through virtual attendance — and an increased interest in being involved in the association. “I had one organization I worked with that created a lot of content around the pandemic because they were in healthcare,” Volland says. “They offered that content to both members and non-members, which I think was pretty common during the pandemic — it didn’t matter if you were a paying member or not, we care about the profession first. This association definitely did see an increase in engagement. But I think it is yet to be seen if it will benefit associations from a leadership perspective.”

Overall, the pandemic acted as a catalyst for change for just about every organization in the country, and associations were no different. For associations that have made large changes to how they operate, analyzing the success of those changes is paramount.

When making these analyses, board and committee members should look to the pandemic as an opportunity to improve the association and adopt the strategies that worked and rethink those that didn’t. Coming out of the pandemic, associations that apply these lessons learned will be well-suited to meet any new challenges that emerge.  

About the Author

Andrew Conner is a Chicago-based writer and editor.

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