A World Without Boards

A million years ago back in Dallas (actual time: just over a month), Jeff De Cagna, in his unsession on Associations Unorthodox, has asked us to think about radical questions to ask.

Now I love the idea of a radical question. One of the focal points of my consulting work is that asking the right question is as important as getting the right answer, if not more so. Too often, we ask the wrong question, come up with a truly genius answer, and then end up frustrated when it doesn’t fix the problem. And then we kick ourselves for coming up with a bad solution, when that wasn’t the problem at all. We started in the wrong place, so it was going to be virtually impossible for us to end in the right one.

Anyway, here’s what I came up with:

Here’s my radical ?: are boards the best way to run our orgs? What would the alt be/look like? #asae12
— Elizabeth Engel (@ewengel) August 13, 2012

Now, as my wise friend Leslie White, the excellent risk management consultant, points out: assuming your association is formally incorporated (which about 99.876% of us are), you are legally required to have some sort of board.

(Thanks, Leslie.)

So I guess my real question is: why do they operate as they do?

I know not all boards behave badly. But over the years, I’ve seen personal agendas, ego-based posturing, arrogance, cluelessness, personal aggrandizement, meddling with issues outside their ken, lack of willingness to take appropriate responsibility, and lack of willingness to ask difficult questions, all to an alarming degree.

And I don’t just blame the individual board members. We, as association professionals, do a poor job of properly training and preparing them for board service, and then setting and enforcing boundaries. It’s no wonder they have a tendency to run wild.

The reason it becomes a big problem is that the board has a lot of power.


It’s not for legal reasons.

And I’m not saying that no board should ever fulfill the common responsibilities of financial oversight and planning and managing the chief staff executive. I’m just asking why we act as if they have to.

I don’t have an answer to the question of a world without boards – or at least, pace Leslie, where board service is dramatically different.

But if we aren’t being well-served by the model (and some of us plainly aren’t), why not look for an alternative?

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