Monday, December 12, 2011

What Race for Relevance Inadvertently Taught Me About Committees

I've talked about Race for Relevance once before on this blog, the recent book by Harrison Coerver and Mary Byers calling for "Five Radical Changes for Associations." In that previous post, I make the case that the book’s five supposedly radical ideas for remaking associations aren’t radical at all—or shouldn’t be in the 21st century. But the actions the book suggests association leaders take based on those ideas are radical, in the extreme, especially to organizations still saddled with 50-person boards of directors and 100+ committees. To the staff leaders of those organizations, for whom the suggested actions seem impossible, my suggestion was to use Race for Relevance as a negotiating position with their boards.

There are a few other points from the book that didn’t make it into that post, but which I would like to highlight. They are things I think are very well stated and have helped me frame issues I sometimes find myself struggling to wrap my arms around. Things like, believe it or not, generational change in association membership.

The generational issue is causing a sea change in join rates, volunteer engagement, and the value associations place on programs and services. Vince Sandusky, chief executive officer of the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association (SMACNA), summarizes the situation well: “SMACNA is a strong association, but the next generation of contractors has different definitions of value, different ways of accessing information, different learning processes, and different ways of socializing. SMACNA’s traditional structure and processes are not aligned with changing contractor preferences, and the rate of change is accelerating.”

I should send Vince a note of thanks. That one sentence helps me justify (at least to myself) the continued exploration I’m doing with social media for my association—even though there are very few current members who play in those spaces.

Another area in which this book has helped me gain clarity is the use and value of committees, but probably not in the way the authors intended. And certainly not in the views of fellow bloggers Jamie Notter and Jeff De Cagna, given their recent posts and comments on the subject. Here’s, in part, what Coerver and Byers say about this staple of association organization and function:

The system is almost always considered to be the source of future board members and officers. It is the farm team, the talent bank, the opportunity for members to demonstrate their abilities and for the association to monitor their performance. We have to ask: How can the traditional committee structure and dysfunction possibly produce the next generation of competent leaders? We believe that the majority of committees do not produce, do not capitalize on the volunteer resource at their disposal, do not result in a positive experience for the member, and in fact, drive off more members than they cultivate. And in many instances, the volunteers who survive are not always the best and the brightest. Though not always, they sometimes are groupies and wannabes who like to travel, hang with the big dogs, hobnob with peers, and feed their egos.

I can’t argue with any of this. The brightest future leaders won’t develop from dysfunctional committee structures like the ones the authors describe. And one of their remedies for the situation—to allow all committees and task forces to be chaired by association staff professionals—has a certain trailblazing appeal to it. After all, who better to keep a committee procedurally on track and provide more space for association members to stay focused on the volunteer contribution of their industry knowledge and wisdom than a competent staff person? But then I read this justification for putting staff members in charge:

Managing volunteer committees or task forces takes skills that not everyone possesses. You must understand how to manage a project. You must understand how to communicate, build consensus, and deal with conflict. You have to know how to schedule and manage meetings. You must know how to make a recommendation and write a report and how to navigate the association’s bureaucracy and work within its policies.

And I think they’re right. These are not skills that everyone possesses. Communication, building consensus, dealing with conflict, managing meetings, navigating bureaucracy, working within policies—these are all leadership skills, and not everyone is a leader.

But isn’t the opportunity to develop these skills leading an association committee part of the value proposition an association can offer its members? Committees can serve many purposes within an association, and if one of those purposes is to be leadership development, then let’s position committee service as more than just a rite of passage. In addition to doing productive work on behalf of the association’s mission, it’s an opportunity to hone your communication skills, to practice building consensus and dealing with conflict—all in an environment that contains some professional risk, but not nearly as much as practicing those skills on a project critical to your employer’s success.

Committees that produce valuable benefits for an association’s members while developing the leadership capacity of the association and the industry it represents are an essential facet of a successful association’s value proposition and, importantly, the traditional association business model. For all the dysfunction that surrounds many associations’ use of committees and task forces, they can still represent a unique benefit for professional development and industry advancement.


  1. You're right on that part of the value proposition we can offer memebrs is developing some of the skillsets you identified as needed for successful committee leadership. We forget to position volunteer involvement as a significant professional development offering, and we fail to consistently invite volunteers to reflect on what they are learning and the skills they are developing as a result of their involvement.

    When I worked on the college campus, the idea of co-curricular transcripts was just taking hold ... documenting your campus involvement and the skills developed in a way to complement the academic transcript. We could be doing something similar in associations.

  2. Thanks for the perspective, Jeffrey. I agree that we often undersell the professional development opportunities associated with volunteer service in our associations. Members of my board recently called my attention to this fact during a recent brainstorming exercise on the value proposition our association offers them as members.