There are thousands of great associations, chambers and other nonprofits working for important causes. Each has a mission and dedicated leadership. I have been introduced to noteworthy practices in governance, communications and membership.

First Know WHY

Know precisely why the organization exists. It should be clear by the mission, but that is often stuffed with everything the board can fit into it. Worse, then nobody can remember much about the mission.

JetBlue founder David Neeleman attributes success to knowing the "reason for being." His advice for organizations, "…get into the business for the right reasons and not just for the sake of doing it." The same holds true for associations.

Great boards govern at an altitude of at least 50,000 feet, staying out of the weeds. Every activity, program and service should align with the reason for being.

Not-so-great boards seldom ask WHY. They address low-level tactics; for example, a discussion about a proposed workshop to improve competency and consumer confidence deteriorates to the level of, "What do you think we should serve for lunch?"

In the book "Start with Why" by Simon Sinek he offers, "…people [members] won’t truly buy into a product, service, movement, or idea until they understand the WHY behind it.” He adds, “We are drawn to leaders and organizations that are good at communicating what they believe."

Sinek said, "The WHY should be communicated unambiguously through the mission and strategic plan."

The California Association of REALTORS® communicates purpose with clarity. When one checks the front page of many association websites they find the usual "government relations, networking and annual convention."

CAR’s leadership team translates their mission and strategic plan into what members want. They sell the sizzle, not the steak, as the adage goes, by promoting three strategic goals to 170,000 members:

  • Transaction Center — Providing the tools and information to keep REALTORS® integral to the real estate transaction.
  • Learn & Thrive — Heightening professional development with educational materials, marketing tools, training videos, and more.
  • Industry 360° — Positioning members for success by providing essential information on market data, government affairs, legislation, and trending industry issues.

Recommendation: Discuss the reason for existence with the board. Do all programs and services align and deliver value? Are key documents such as the mission, strategic plan and elevator speech compelling and clear?

Board GPS

The strategic plan is the board’s road map. Nearly everything the board, committees and staff affect should be framed by the plan.

To emphasize the purpose of a plan guiding the board, the Greater Greer Chamber of Commerce in South Carolina promotes their mission and goals as the G.P.S., standing for Goals, Plans and Strategies.

The plan keeps successive boards “between the rails.” An organization is not successful if each new board changes direction.

Keep the strategic plan on the board table for continuous reference. Elements of the plan should be integrated into the agenda, including the mission and goals.

Recommendation: Dust off the current strategic plan. Does it have meaning to the board, committees, staff and membership? How effectively is it communicated?

The Right Frequency

Boards should convene when there is good reason. Meetings are not intended to be a breakfast club or social hour. Oddly, some bylaws prescribe meeting frequency as often as monthly.

At the American Institute of Architects (AIA) in Columbus, Ohio, they considered monthly meetings were draining the leadership and staff. They decided to try every other month.

Elizabeth Krile, CAE, Executive Director, explains, "Although there was a desire to change, there was the issue of tradition. The board had met monthly for decades. This alone was a challenge, but through the strong leadership of the president and officers, we ‘piloted’ a bi-monthly meeting schedule in 2018 that continues today."

A simple method to measure cost of a board meeting value is to multiply the number of people at the meeting, times $100 each, times the length of the meeting (include the staff). Thus, 20 persons attending a 2.5-hour meeting has a minimum value of $5,000.

Use the formula to consider the board time compared to outcomes. Add to that the logistical (food, rental) and reimbursable costs (travel).

Design an agenda that carries the board’s work for at least 60 to 90 days. If an urgent situation arises, use online technology to convene quickly or delegate authority to the executive committee.

Recommendation: Discuss frequency and work-life balance with the board. Consider ways to make governance more efficient.

Discipline of a Consent Agenda

Meeting agendas often include an array of committee, officer and staff reports to be read, heard and voted upon. The average of 15 reports can take an hour or longer.

Board meetings are the place for governance, not listening to and approving inconsequential reports. Board time is valuable. Take advantage of the expertise at the table by engaging directors in problem solving.

Save hours by using the consent technique. Distribute information-only reports with the meeting agenda sent well in advance.

Consent may require a cultural change. There are some boards that feel like every committee report should have time on the agenda.

The concept requires discipline. Discipline to submit reports in advance of the meeting. Discipline to prepare for meetings by reading the reports. Discipline to avoid rehashing what was already accepted in the consent agenda. The chief elected officer should impose requirements about timely reports and director preparedness.

The Charleston Trident Associationof REALTORS® integrates technology into their consent agenda. Rather than sending a link to a collage of reports to be read, the documents are hyperlinked to the agenda in the order they will be discussed. Kudos to CTAR for including the antitrust, conflicts and confidentiality policies at the top of their agenda

Recommendation: Count the number of reports and the amount of time they consumed on recent agendas. Do the minutes primarily document approval of reports? Discuss how the consent technique can be adopted or adapted for improved outcomes.

Values Matter

Values are the guiding principles of the board and staff. They evolve organically, easily identified through discussions and actions.

The San Diego County Bar Association (SDCBA) lives their values. They’ve agreed on six principles that guide the work of the board, committees, sections and staff team.

SDCBA created a set of Duplo building blocks for the desks of the leadership and staff. From experience, I know these six values drive their actions to "set the Bar higher."

Business associations around the globe concur on at least three guiding principles: Transparency, Accountability and Respect.

Recommendation: Ask the board which values should drive the organization’s leadership team. Are the principles promoted to the membership and community?

Powerful Mission

The mission statement is the gold standard. Few directors realize it is the basis for federal tax exemption, submitted annually to the IRS. The mission statement should frame every discussion and decision.

The Florida Medical Association has bronzed its four-word mission where it is displayed at the entrance of their state headquarters. "Helping physicians practice medicine."

From the mission expands their brand statement and goals: FMA CARES — Collaboration, Advocacy, Resiliency, Education and Service.

Keep the mission in front of the board and committees by including it on the conference room wall, on meeting agendas, and frequently ask, "How does this advance our mission?"

Start meetings with a mission moment. Review for the board how the organization’s mission has advanced the community or benefited a person.

Recommendation: Ask the board if the current mission best positions the organization for the next decade. Can it be improved?


Decades ago the Ohio Society of Association Executives adopted a policy statement on diversity.

It was long before diversity became a value or priority for many associations. In part it still reads, "OSAE promotes involvement and access to leadership opportunity to all members regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, age, sexual orientation, nationality, or disability."

Quoting Sinek of "Start with Why," he says, "For values or guiding principles to be truly effective they have to be verbs. It’s not 'integrity,' it’s 'always do the right thing.' It’s not 'innovation,' it’s 'look at the problem from a different angle.' Articulating our values as verbs gives us a clear idea — we have a clear idea of how to act in any situation."

At Association Forum of Chicago, Executive Director Michelle Mason, FASAE, CAE, takes diversity a step further by explaining that inclusion comes before diversity.

She explains, "We are viewing diversity and inclusion through the wrong lens. It is really inclusion and diversity — the ‘I’ comes before the ‘D.’ As organizations, we need to hire without bias or we will risk losing out on valuable employees."

Mason concludes, "Associations are in a unique position to be catalysts for change in the industries we represent. It is up to us to be leaders in diversity and examples for inclusion both for our staff and for our members."

Recommendation: Discuss examples and omissions of inclusion and diversity in the organization. Is diversity reflected in every element? What efforts are made for inclusion of all people and ideas?

Craft a More Effective Agenda

The Michigan Optometric Association was an early adaptor in integrating elements of their strategic plan into the board meeting agenda.

The goals are woven into the body of the agenda while the mission is printed at the bottom: "To advance and support optometry in serving eye care needs in Michigan."

MOA uses a consent agenda to dispense with routine reports that zap valuable board time, leaving more time for a focus on elements of mission and goals.

Recommendation: An agenda should serve the needs of the organization and governance. Development of an agenda is a shared responsibility between executive director and chief elected officer. Don’t fall victim to the phrase, "We’ve always done it that way."

Dues Return on Investment

Members expect a return on investment (ROI) for dues paid. Prospects are asking, "Why join?" There is continuous need to communicate value.

The Florida Nursery, Growers and Landscape Association (FNGLA) pioneered an online member value calculator. From certifications, committee participation and conference attendance, member involvement is up, reports Ben Bolusky, Executive Vice President at FNGLA.

Several years ago they created a value-statement describing what the association offers members. With a few clicks, members and prospects can estimate their ROI (

Recommendation: To determine ROI against dues investment, the leadership must identify and communicate value. The first step is to identify every benefit and service. The second requires assigning subjective values. Transform the value-statement to be an ROI benefits calculator on the website.

In summary, these are a few examples of noteworthy and proven practices. There are tens of thousands of associations and chambers that have adopted, adapted and developed highly successful practices of their own.