As the sun came up on our last day at the Mayan Dude Ranch, my mind was spinning. Circling around something. Tightening in like our trick roper’s lasso the previous night. No doubt, this all had a little to do with the potent smell of cowboy coffee, horse hair, and last night’s bourbon in my nostrils as we dug into breakfast. But what set it in motion in the first place, and what continued to dominate the conversation at that breakfast table, was the weekend’s co-creation work.
Twenty-five of us had gathered at the second annual Association Charrette to explore key challenges facing our profession’s present and future. With limitless topics to pick apart, we quickly homed in on three: staffing practices, business models, and governance structures. The goal of the 48-hour fly-in never was to walk away with all of the answers. Rather, we sought to better understand the problems, and hopefully leave with better questions. Questions we could test and workshop when we got home and hung up our spurs.
When we picked subgroups, I signed on to tackle governance. My interest in good governance has followed me over the years, from my time as volunteer and director in multiple civic nonprofits, to my work as an association professional, through my independent study and writing on the birth and development of local governance in America. When it comes to innovation in associations, I feel like governance often gets short shrift relative to the impact it could have on strategy and member engagement.
So I was pleased when, just days after the Charrette, I saw an article featured in Association Success: “Why I’m Optimistic About the Future of Association Governing.” The article, by Jeff De Cagna, teases his free ebook, Foresight is the Future of Governing, which I promptly downloaded and dove into.
Having read it, I’m glad Jeff is keeping governance at the forefront of our minds, and challenging us to expand our definition of the director role. Yet, I found myself flipping back and forth, looking for the questions we’d grappled with on the ranch. It felt like more needed to be said. Or at least, asked.
What follows is not a beat-for-beat dialogue based on Jeff’s provocative thinking. Rather, I’ll try raise a few questions, build on the conversation, and open the invitation for Jeff and others to keep it going.
Let me start by saying I agree with Jeff’s central premise. We should challenge directors to adopt a duty of foresight, focus on the essential outcomes of governing, and champion diversity. These sound like the marks of a high-performing, future-oriented board, and organizations should strive to incorporate these goals into their system of governance.
When it comes to what that system should look like, the book suggests these core elements can be draped over any association structure. The board always owns the responsibility, so the book concentrates on renewing and improving their commitment. Those lower in the chain of governance can contribute, but it’s the board—the book posits—that is uniquely positioned with the authority and responsibility to fulfill this duty.
Fundamentally, it’s hard to argue with that. But I think there are some omissions and underlying assumptions that merit exploration. I’ll focus on three:
- Transformational change requires systems change.
- We shouldn’t rule out government as a source of inspiration for those systems.
- Any new system should aim for broad-based participation.
Board, Grab Your Bootstraps
No matter the structure, the buck stops with the board. That’s a fact. But Jeff’s book seems to take that a step further, suggesting that other components of structure have a comparatively little impact because they lack formal authority. Change is dependent on directors. They must exert their will and achieve a heightened sense of personal responsibility to transform and lead a sustainable, thriving system.
When it comes to behavior change, intent and willpower often fail without some attention to the system. As many January gym-goers can attest, resolve wears off without some additional mind to lifestyle: a friend or coach who can keep you accountable; a gym closer to the office; a change in your commute to avoid the donut shop.
So we might ask: what about the current system causes so many boards to bend toward the short-term goals of governance? First, maybe, directors are human, so they tend toward the present because it’s familiar and comfortable. Another possible influence: incentives. Duty of care, loyalty, and obedience are all linked to fiduciary obligations. They are designed promote oversight, not foresight. Conversely, there is no legal consequence for failing to perform duty of foresight, or failing to nurture a coherent, capable system.
Talk of transformational change in board governance needs to go beyond the intent, commitment, and vigilance of directors. We should talk in specific terms about systems, venues, and processes to short circuit ingrained behaviors and promote future orientation. Structure matters.
Fortunately, unlike many nonprofits, associations have a unique class of stakeholders, with the potential to go beyond the role of customer, client, or donor. Members are constituents of the board. Because of that, associations have always been, and continue to be, an essential slice of American public life. They are self-incorporated by members to serve a public good. While the state won’t (and shouldn’t) keep boards accountable to this duty of foresight, members can. If the system lets them.
Throwing the Baby Out with the Orthodoxy
For centuries, associations have tried various self-government schemes. These have often tended toward what we know, or think we know, about participatory systems. Leaders set up rigid hierarchical pyramids, and maybe even try their hand at democratic elections. Some of these forms of participation expose associations to divisive political agendas and lethargic layers of bureaucracy. Noting this real problem, the book diagnoses as a core delusion the idea that there is any similarity between associations and governments. It dubs this “Orthodoxy 1.” Referencing the US Federal Government, it asserts that “associations should reject bureaucratic and insular government-style structures and embrace open, inclusive, and flexible governing practices that accelerate learning.”
I wholeheartedly agree with Jeff on this point: the Federal Government is a pretty contaminated well of inspiration. But I think it’s a bridge too far to say there is no overlap between the goals of associations and the broad goals of representative government. More than that, to the extent we abandon those common goals, we also abandon our only unique advantage. The federal model was designed to contend with clashing ideologies; it’s meant to slow down decision-making. It’s highly political. It also constitutes a very narrow picture of government in America.
There are plenty of other, less politicized government systems from which we might draw inspiration. Local government models are numerous, and all have to strike a balance among representation, policy, and practical issue like picking up the trash at a high level, the majority of small-to-medium size cities have moved to a council-manager charter of local governance, in which an elected (often non-partisan) board hires a professional city manager to run executive functions. City managers and other executive agencies have experimented for decades with collaborative governance: innovative participatory experiences that go beyond politicking to facilitate tangible outcomes and shared decision-making.
Chris Ansell, professor of political science at UC Berkeley, describes collaborative governance as “an alternative to the adversarialism of interest group pluralism and to the accountability failures of managerialism (especially as the authority of experts is challenged).” It is formal, consensus-oriented, and deliberative. Take New York’s popular participatory budgeting program, in which citizens come together to decide how a predetermined portion of the budget should be spent in their district, with the help of facilitated online and in-person ideation, exploration, and decision-making. Or we could pull inspiration from modern day city planning offices, many of which have worked hard to shed the backroom zoning practices of the past. Today’s city planners are incredibly adept at leading iterative, citizen-led planning processes that unearth a district’s assets, hopes, and concerns in the pursuit of a co-created plan.
True, even a council-manager model implies elected representation. We’re a long ways into the American experiment, and we’re still not sure whether elected leaders are supposed to provide representation of, or representation for a community. Associations would do well to avoid this quagmire. Self-elected boards and appointed committees keep us agile. But we should also recognize that government has something to teach us about inclusive, effective co-creation. Like direct voting, co-creation experiences can increase the transparency and accountability of governance. Unlike voting, its side benefits are civil dialogue and shared value creation.
Duty of Co-Creation
If associations are not governments, we are also not Amazon or Netflix (as much agita as that causes us). Yes, we have plenty to learn from these forward-thinking companies when it comes to how they collect, store, learn from, and use data to improve the customer experience. But I have never seen a Prime subscriber walk into a room wearing an Amazon lapel pin. I have never heard of someone volunteering their time to Netflix for the sake of advancing prestige TV. Participation, belonging, and identity are core services of associations. As we strive to keep up with for-profit giants of innovation, we should also protect what sets us apart.
Sound quaint? It’s more important now than ever. It’s old news that top-down communication won’t cut it, and the expectation of one-to-one communication with members created by social media is over a decade old. We have even moved beyond the expectation of many-to-many communication. These days, joiners expect increased transparency, access to decision making, and flattened power structures. Web tools make it easier than ever for members to do more than find and communicate with others who share their interests and values. More than that, these tools make it possible to organize and stand up their own imagined community if they see no channel for formal participation. We must ensure our governance system makes space for all members who care to participate, and facilitates shared meaning making as a service.
What if we hardwired into our governance structures a few clear, reliable venues for at-large member participation in decision-making and value-making regarding the future of the organization? These venues wouldn’t have to be numerous. To foster broad-based member participation, they should be accessible, transparent, and set to a predictable schedule. What if we committed to keep our membership involved in decision making at scale? Call it Duty of Co-creation.
Then, we would also need to recognize that it takes true skill to design and facilitate inclusive participation, whether in person or online. To support rotating directors in this kind of work, staff would need to become adept at things like experience design, meeting design, and facilitation. It won’t be enough to stage an annual town-hall, place a comment wall by the registration desk, or deploy an online community and check the box for “co-creation.”
So what does it look like? Maybe it’s an annual charrette where directors lead members in exercises that develop the skills of sense- and meaning-making. Maybe it’s a decision-making exercise to let small groups of members weigh in on projects proposed by committees or special-interest groups, score-weighted by staff to account for limited resources. Maybe it’s a caucus style debate among competing priorities or interests within a membership. Whatever shape it takes, co-creation requires time and money. This means, like a duty of foresight, the responsibility to adopt duty of co-creation is ultimately on directors.
To sum up, we can’t ask directors to change their governance diet and expect it to last without also addressing the details of the system. As we debate what the governance structures of the future look like, we should embrace our dual identity as providers of services and products, and facilitators of co-creation for members who care to participate. The future of association governance will be difficult, but I, like Jeff, am optimistic. With commitment from directors, and the right participatory systems in place, we can offer every new member a piece of the excitement and ownership our founding members felt when they gathered in a small room for the first time, and mapped out a shared vision of the future.
What are your reactions and thoughts? Is duty of co-creation important or reasonable to expect of association directors? Have you seen collaborative governance in action in the association space? Let’s continue the conversation on LinkedIn, and Twitter (@nmarzano) using Jeff’s suggested hashtag #futureofgoverning.