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Making associations work: New book by IU experts offers recipe for success

August 6, 2013
Bloomington, Indiana --

Millions of Americans belong to membership organizations, from trade unions to neighborhood associations, from sports clubs to chambers of commerce. The effectiveness of those groups is in large part determined by the abilities of their governing boards. Two Indiana University researchers offer a recipe for strong board leadership in a new book that tackles an important but overlooked subject.

Based on a survey of nearly 1,600 nonprofit CEOs and executive directors, these are the key ingredients to success developed by Beth Gazley and Ashley Bowers from the Indiana University Bloomington School of Public and Environmental Affairs:

  • A strong strategic orientation and culture
  • Effective selection and decision-making procedures
  • A culture of learning and assessment
  • Close relationships with staff and with one another

Beth GazleyThe survey also revealed a warning that member-serving organizations should take seriously: Many of their directors are making plans to leave their jobs.

Gazley and Bowers analyze the survey results and lay out strategic choices that answer the question in the book's title: "What Makes High-Performing Boards? Effective Governance Practices in Member-Serving Organizations" (ASAE Association Management Press). The study was sponsored by the ASAE Foundation, the research arm of the ASAE: The Center for Association Leadership. The book will be available for purchase in August 2013 on the ASAE website.

"Associations and organizations with dues-paying members serve a broad swath of society," Gazley said. "They operate in many parts of the nonprofit tax code and haven't been studied nearly as much as charities have. But they are also led by boards, and good governance matters equally to them. All boards are expected to perform their stewardship and oversight roles in an increasingly transparent environment, under the scrutiny of the public, the media and regulators."

Good governance begins with a well-chosen and right-sized board. Gazley and Bowers found that boards of about 12 to 20 members operate most effectively, but they caution that there is no magic number.

"Above all, good governance is about intentional design," Gazley said.

Strategies for screening prospective board members and limiting their terms in office are also strong contributors to board performance. External nominations and appointments are problematic and introduce the potential for conflicts of interest.

Once a board is in place, the members are most effective when they think strategically.

Ashley Bowers"We found that all too often boards get swept up in the day-to-day operations of the organization," Bowers said. "That frustrates the CEOs and staff. They want the board to spend its time pointing the ship to the right destination so they're free to focus on the journey."

Boards also operate most effectively when the members willingly take a hard look at their own performance.

"Self-assessment matters," Gazley said. "There are a lot of board assessment tools out there, but we found the board's commitment to the process was more important than the choice of tools."

A final element in good governance is a well-trained CEO and stable, professional staffing. The best CEOs are trained in association management and have a long tenure in their positions, the authors conclude.

"The problem is that many association leaders don't see long tenures as likely," Gazley said. "Nearly half our respondents were planning to leave their positions, and 29 percent expected to quit within the next three years. They're highly dissatisfied with board performance, and they're voting with their feet."

The solution, Gazley suggests, is for boards to practice an active culture of responsibility and to invest sufficiently in board development and management. "Whatever size, composition and decision-making structure they choose, structure is ultimately less important than the means by which they facilitate effective decisions as a governance body."

An associate professor at the School of Public and Environmental Affairs, Beth Gazley earned her Ph.D. from the University of Georgia. She has earned numerous awards for her teaching and scholarship. Before beginning her career at Indiana University, she was a fundraising professional and management consultant for public interest, cultural and higher education institutions.

Ashley Bowers is an assistant clinical professor in SPEA and director of IU's Center for Survey Research. She has served as a survey statistician and methodologist for several organizations including the United Way of America and Nielsen Media Research.

About the Indiana University Bloomington School of Public and Environmental Affairs

SPEA was founded in 1972 and is a world leader in public and environmental affairs and is the largest school of public administration and public policy in the United States. In the 2012 "Best Graduate Schools" by U.S. News & World Report, SPEA ranks second and is the nation's highest-ranked professional graduate program in public affairs at a public institution. Four of its specialty programs are ranked in the top-five listings. SPEA's doctoral programs in public affairs and public policy are also ranked by the National Academy of Science as among the nation's best.

About ASAE: The Center for Association Leadership

ASAE represents more than 21,000 association executives and industry partners representing 10,000 organizations. Members manage leading trade associations, individual membership societies and voluntary organizations across the United States and in nearly 50 countries around the world.