Getting the Most Out of Your Board

5th December 2019

As association executives, your job is to effectively manage the implementation of the vision set out by your boards of directors. After all, your organization belongs to your members, and the board members are their representatives. It is critical as executives to ensure that association leaders can, well, lead the organization, as argues here Matthew D’Uva, FASAE, CAE, CEO of the International Association for the Study of Pain and member of Boardroom Advisory Board.

What is Board Leadership?

It is important to be clear about what it means for boards to lead. It is critical to define terms. New board members often come to the role with a very different set of expectations and understanding of the role of board members, association management as a profession, and the specific duties of serving as member of the board related to strategy and vision for the association.

When your organization is global, this complexity increases exponentially. In my experience, perceptions of association management, association management professionals and board service can differ dramatically in different parts of the world. For example, a new board member might have limited experience in working with an association executive and professional staff.

In navigating the diversity of thought, expectation and experience, it is key to assume nothing! If a board member has had prior service on another association board (even in your field or industry), it is important for all parties that board members get training, continuing education, and reminders about the unique operations, culture, and structure of your organization. It is important to get clarity about the individual role of boards relative to your association. For example, what is the role of board members in organizational fundraising or as the association spokesperson?

Thus, it is important to acknowledge past board/volunteer experience with other organizations, and ensure that these preconceived ideas of association management and governance do not hinder the learning process critical to understanding their new leadership role. Implementation of a thoughtful and well-crafted orientation and learning strategy is paramount.

Making the Case

For most of us, association leaders come to their role because of their passion for the field, industry, and/or profession- – not for their love of association management. As leaders, we need to make the business and legal case why it is imperative for them to learn and understand association management principles.

At the International Association for the Study of Pain (IASP), here are a few things that we do to help address some of these challenges and concerns:

Roles and Responsibilities

While it is an investment of time (and patience) to maintain, we have an active and evolving governance manual. Our manual clearly outlines and integrates association bylaws with the board policy. In particular, our governance manual defines the roles of key leaders within the association including: the President, Executive Committee (IASP Officers), Board of Directors, and the Chief Executive Officer specifically:

  • Organizational Decisions/Authority: specifies which groups can make decisions on important things like budget approval
  • Job Description: outlines key roles and responsibilities for the leadership groups within the organization
  • Emergencies: envisions processes for unexpected situations such as emergencies including succession planning


It is important to commit time and energy to comprehensive board training. At IASP, we have an extensive new board orientation process for new directors and officers. Our training process is encompassed by three virtual meetings (each one hour) held over a period of two-three months with a four breakfast prior to new members first meeting.

Our training includes the following modules:

  • Legal Orientation: Thanks to our outside legal counsel, IASP conducts a full orientation on the key legal responsibilities of board members (duty of care, loyalty, and obedience).
  • Strategic Plan/Operational Plan: Engage board members in all aspects of the strategic plan and corresponding operational plan.
  • Role of Professional Staff: Educate board members on the role of the CEO and staff in operationalizing the strategic plan and supporting the committees, working groups, and task forces.
  • Board Meetings: Guidance on board meeting agendas, pre-read materials, and parliamentary procedure to ensure that board members know how to “show up” to meetings and know what to expect.
  • Mentorship: Connect new board members with veteran members of the board. IASP makes these connections in advance of the first board meeting.

In my previous organization, we also had a commitment to ongoing training. At two board meetings (of the three total) annually, we engaged in board development opportunities focused on association management. Some past resources including sharing past articles from Boardroom or ASAE’s Associations Now (particularly their annual January Leadership Issue). Additionally, I recommend using “Good to Great and the Social Sectors: Why Business is Not the Answer (2005)” by Jim Collins, an easy read that addresses some of the challenges unique to the association world.


In addition to education and training, it is critical for IASP to get our board to work. It is through this engagement that board members embrace their roles for leadership in the organization.

We encourage them first to work on Committees/Special Interest Groups: Board members are assigned leadership roles as liaisons/advisors to committees, working groups, and task forces. Additionally, board members have a responsibility to serve as a liaison for a special interest group.

IASP also provides board members with an organizational scorecard to track progress on organizational key performance indicators (KPI). Another good example comes from my service as a board member from another association. In that organization, board members were provided quarter board scorecards to track individual expectations around donations to the foundation, political action committees, and membership activities. I found that as a board member, it was an excellent way to communicate and reinforce expectations, and most importantly, an effective way to get results.

Working with IASP leadership, we also strive to create agendas that engage all members. Through our meetings, we engage in a mix of small- and large-group discussions with active discussion and group exercises. Through these diverse formats, we track engagement by all board members in the discussion and strategy. Prior to implementation of these meeting formats, 60% of our members did not actively participate in the discussion.

And of course we stay in regular communication with our board members via email and video conference calls. They, in turn, are actively engaged in providing 360 degree feedback to the CEO.

Face of the Organization

Ultimately, board members serve as the “face” of the organization. In order to facilitate their success, we prepare members with tools and resources to help them speak the language of IASP.  We provide sample presentations (including slides and videos) about the organization that can be given at meetings. We also provide single slides that board members can use for their own presentations at industry meetings. We engage with board members regularly to ensure that if they attend an industry meeting, they are visible in our exhibit booths, wear organizational lapel pins during the meeting, and engage with industry representatives on new opportunities for the organization.

Finally, leadership training is an ongoing process and requires our continued commitment and focus. At IASP, we are turning our attention next to improving our leadership development practices with our special interest groups, chapters, committees, working groups, and task forces to allow us to begin our training processes with individuals prior to their election to the board.

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