Is your current structure stifling your mission?
Do you have metaphorical tollbooths for your staff and volunteer leaders? Those tollbooths serve as permission-withholding stops and starts where every staff member and leader must get authorization and agreement to move an idea forward.
Tollbooths are usually embedded in your organization’s governance structure—the bylaws, constitution, committees and SOPs that spell out all the procedure that must be followed and enforced. Structures do matter because the either serve or hinder your organization’s mission. My experience with many nonprofits is that a vast majority of their governance models are controlling—and extremely frustrating to staff and leaders—rather than empowering.
Governance Structures Should Be Tools Not Tollbooths
If we truly believe that our organization’s mission is more important than our governance structure, than that structure should serve the mission. We would actually outlaw permission-withholding tollbooths.
Yet often our structures and bylaws—that haven’t changed in decades—are considered sacred. Not to be messed with or changed.
Here’s my point—nothing, absolutely nothing—is sacred about leadership structures in most nonprofit associations. They are to be tools that empower staff and leaders to further the mission.
In The Early Days, Associations Resemble Families
We need to understand the beginnings of our governance models. We need to consider our initial beliefs, views of governance and principles that lead to these structures.
And we must be willing to change our structures so that they support, empower and serve our missions.
Most association governance models were put into place when the organization was small. Small nonprofit associations usually have about 100-200 stakeholders. They are small enough to feel like an extended family. And here in lies the first challenge with growth.
Most families make decisions through consensus. They don’t have official formal processes. They sit around the dinner table and discuss futures, challenges and plans. They allow everyone a chance to be part of the discussion.
This is very much like small nonprofit trade associations. They find ways to allow everyone to talk together, even if there is not a formal vote.
The crack in this type of system occurs as the organization grows.
You know if your governance model is still in a startup family phase because it has a complex and convoluted system of approvals that no longer is efficient or effective. These models are defined more by sociology (organization size) and beliefs of checks and balances than effective structures for furthering the mission.
Foundation Of Mistrust Of People
Most checks and balances of association models for authority or responsibility are based on a mistrust of people. That mistrust is deep in our personal psyche.
We naturally distrust those in authority. We all want a stake in the decisions because we don’t trust our leaders.
When we place a system of checks and balances in our nonprofit trade association governance we actively foster mistrust. When we don’t allow staff to do their tasks without passing through volunteer leadership committee tollbooths, we foster mistrust in the entire organization. These archaic systems actually show our leaders dysfunctional beliefs that we should question and limit one another. And they hinder our maturity and growth.
Likewise, we often distribute that authority to different committees which brings greater opportunity for misunderstanding. In most cases, outright conflict ensues. Not only does every operational action and decision pass through a tollbooth, they also deal with mistrusting tollkeepers.
Your Association Needs A Renaissance Of Trust
Your association needs a renaissance of trust among its volunteer leaders, committees, staff, members and stakeholders.
We need to see our association staff and volunteer leaders as a partnership, not a competition. As the association grows, there is no way that the organization can be healthy without trusting its staff to do the work and allowing leadership to provide strategic direction.
Most businesses would be in severe trouble, even shutting down, if they operated with the kinds of tollbooth, permission-withholding, mistrust of people governance structures that associations allow.
It’s time to make the necessary changes in your governance structure so that you can remain effective in fulfilling your mission.
Hat tips to T. J. Addington for his writings about boards and metaphor of permission-withholding tollbooths.
What does an association leadership need to start evaluating its current governance model? What are some of the other traits of a deranged association governance model?