Fixing a Faulty Equation: Underprepared Leaders = An Underperforming Board

by Sherri Oken, CAE, and Bob Harris, CAE


Is this a frequent scene at the start of board meetings? The meeting is called to order and suddenly, nearly everyone at the table, even the board chair, is feverishly reading the agenda and reports --- although they were distributed days or weeks in advance.

Perhaps you are the rare association management professional who has not experienced the frustration of well-meaning but unprepared board members. However, for everyone else, we offer the following to share with your board.

Fiduciary Responsibility

Congratulations on being chosen as a member of the board of directors. To paraphrase a line from the movie The Graduate, "I just want to say one word to you. Are you listening? Just one word," FIDUCIARY! 

A fiduciary is what you have become by joining the board. You are entrusted and empowered to protect the organization’s assets and act in its best interests. To do so, you need to listen to discussions and counsel carefully, read and ask questions. In other words, become and stay informed so you can carry out your fiduciary duty. These are legal responsibilities, often referred to as the duties of care, loyalty and obedience.

Attorney Jeffrey Tenenbaum of Venable law firm in Washington, D.C. fleshes this out a bit more: “Board members are required to act reasonably, prudently and in the best interests of the organization, to avoid negligence and fraud, and to avoid conflicts of interest."  

Board Advice

How do you apply these concepts to service as a board member? Consider this advice for directors to better fulfill their responsibilities, actively participate in board work, and to enjoy the experience of leadership.

  • Make time. Serving as a volunteer requires a commitment of time and resources; take it seriously.
  • Manage the details. There will be reports and knowledge essential to carrying our responsibilities. Decide how to manage the information you’ll receive from the start to avoid being overwhelmed or disorganized.
  • Know your resources. Volunteering is a team effort supported by officers, consultants and staff. Introduce yourself and call on them as you prepare for meetings.
  • Arrive fresh. Avoid running late or bringing distractions from your office or family. Focus on the organization to which you made a time commitment.
  • Use technology. If reports are provided on-line or as e-mail attachments, learn to open, read and save them before arriving at the board meeting. Ask about the benefit of on-line collaboration and document storage.
  • Study the documents. At the start of your term, become acquainted with the bylaws and policies. Understand the resources (and limitations) so you will be better prepared for discussions.
  • Be inquisitive. When you receive the meeting notice and agenda, start inquiring about what must be done for a successful meeting.
  • Again, make time. Review all board reports and other supporting material before the meeting. Print this material for easy reference at the meeting or save to a mobile device for reference. (see "use technology")
  • Learn the Rules of Order. These enable boards to get things done in an efficient manner.
  • Pay attention. Listen to all opinions and options. If you are unable to be an objective participant in discussions, it is perfectly acceptable to excuse yourself. Though it may be difficult, silence or turn off digital distractions.

Most important, enjoy the leadership experience while building a network of colleagues and contributing to the advancement of a cause or community.


About the Authors:  Sherri Oken, CAE, is the principal of The Association Advantage LLC, a full service, association management company specializing in good governance. Bob Harris, CAE, is an internationally recognized facilitator of board training and strategic planning.

A Primer for Building a Strategic Board

As it appeared in the “WednesdayReport” of www.massnonprofit.org 3/13/2013

and has been published in the Non-Profit Advisor available in Kindle format from Amazon and in epub, mobi, PDF, RTF, TXT, and other formats from Smashwords

Nonprofits, regardless of size or sector, understand that a well-articulated strategy will help them achieve their mission, but may not always fully appreciate that creating a strategic board is critical to success.

The following primer will provide guidance in creating a strategic board.

Strategic Board Characteristics

It is a body that takes the long rather than the short view. It creates a vision for an organization and the means to fulfill that vision in concert with its mission and purpose. It insures that the necessary resources are available to implement the strategies essential to achieving organizational goals. It monitors progress and assesses success. It is focused on achievement and creating the conditions for success.

Developing a Strategic Board

It starts by recruiting the right members. Envision the individuals and team you need based on what needs to be accomplished: a competency-based board with the essential skills and specialized knowledge needed to achieve your goals. Set aside old notions of qualifications (longevity in the field or as a member, friendship, industry knowledge, geography, etc.) to identify the right people. 

Create a scalable matrix of needs and must-have skills by developing profiles for each board opening: strengths, skills, specialized knowledge, and personal attributes. Critically evaluate candidates based on needed competencies and if they will make the board a more effective whole:

  • Do they have the temperament, experiential background and expertise to be both visionaries and good stewards of your organization?
  • Will their motivation to serve promote or obstruct the organization’s progress?
  • Can they overcome potential conflicts of interest and act in the best interests of the organization?


As with all volunteers, but especially with volunteers at the upper levels of leadership:

  • Match them with appropriate responsibilities.
  • Use them well and respect their time. Don’t just “make work”.
  • Together, develop realistic expectations for success.
  • Check in on their progress, and offer appropriate back-up and assistance.
  • Provide meaningful recognition for their contributions.


Youth is not a disqualifier. You are seeking leaders, with varying perspectives, who have the ability to be effective on a nonprofit board; they are not being recruited to run a business in your industry or profession. 

Attracting Competent Board Members

Assure that their talent and especially their time will be well used. Make service attractive to the best candidates by sharing clear purpose and goals, defined responsibilities and expectations, and realistic assessments of the time commitment. 

Conducting Business Strategically

Strategic thinkers will not be attracted to a board that does committee work. They will be attracted to a board that is focused on creating the framework, setting the guidelines, ensuring the resources, and assessing the progress of the organization. If all someone wants to do is committee work, encourage them to join a committee or task force. 

Prior to each board meeting, written reports on background information and progress that does not require discussion should be submitted and distributed as a package. Emphasize the basic board responsibility of reviewing all material in advance of meetings: the “duty of care.” 

Utilize action item, meeting agendas that lead discussions to decision making: formulate questions to be deliberated and answered. 

Stay focused. The chairman must keep discussions on track, and when deliberation has been exhausted, introduce consent agenda items for a vote to avoid endless discussion of the same points. 

Retaining Strategic Leaders

Respect the time of your leadership. Meetings should be no longer or shorter than necessary to conduct the business at hand, and held at appropriately frequent intervals in line with your by-laws. Staff driven associations may require less frequent meetings. Conference call meetings are an effective way to move a time-sensitive, specific issue forward between regularly scheduled board meetings.

Sherri L. Oken, CAE, is principal of The Association Advantage LLC, an association management company that guides and supports volunteer leaders in managing their organizations and achieving their strategic goals . Contact her at 781-245-6485 orsolutions@TheAssociationAdvantage.net.

Membership Renewal Campaigns: Nothing is Easy

Recently, on an association CEO Network list serve, a member discussed their not entirely successful experience trying to transition to using a “green” (no mail) renewal campaign.

We've found that we get the best results by using a combination of methods. No one method, and certainly not e-mail alone (too easy to ignore), succeeds. It's not impossible to change the culture of a group but if you're committed to the highest possible retention rate, you have to put in the extra time and effort until that change occurs. For some, it may never succeed 100%, and at some point you may determine to leave some behind. Just keep in mind that the goodwill resulting from providing a little extra service for a few could prove valuable.

We use
a mix of methods to achieve the highest possible renewal rate, depending on which clients’ campaign we are running. They include advance notice postcards; mailed, personalized invoices; web site postings; articles in publications; reminders and displays at meetings; appeals from the leadership; e-mail notices; reminders (entering grace period, soon to lapse, etc.) using a combination of methods. I also suggest, depending on the group, list serve, Facebook & LinkedIn posts, and tweets. We have not used robo-call reminders yet but may consider it. On occasion, we even use fax.

Personal phone calls
always seals the deal since no matter how many times (and kinds of) reminders we send, there are always a few who say they didn't receive anything (translate: notice anything). We’ve found that members really appreciate the personal service --- plus, you learn a lot when speaking to a member directly, whether they choose to renew or not.

Membership work is not easy but it’s the lifeblood of an association and deserves the effort. I would venture to say that if you do a
cost benefit analysis, the effort will prove worthwhile.