Governance Change: Run It Like a Communications and Political Campaign

Governance Change: Run It Like a Communications and Political Campaign

By Erin Volland

Association governance change is fraught with the wall of membership or House of Delegates (HOD) approval. A task force spends months working on a strategic governance issue, researching solutions, gathering data, and reviewing leading practices before presenting their recommendations to the board.  After a healthy discussion, the board approves the recommendations. In some cases, the board can then amend the bylaws and staff are then able to implement the change in their procedures.

More often than not, though, the board must make the case to the membership or HOD to actually institute the change.

This is often where the recommendations fail. That failure can be the result of a group of past leaders mobilizing against the issue. Other times, it’s because the issue is complex and those who are only episodically engaged do not truly understand it. And sometimes the case for change just isn’t strong enough.

No matter the reason, the hard work of the board and the task force to strategically move the association forward is thwarted by the membership or the HOD.

Often we underestimate the pushback that a governance change will garner or how an opposition might mobilize against the change. We look at membership voting numbers that are almost always less than 10% and think the change will pass. Unfortunately, if that was the case in the past, it’s not the case now.

What can you do then to help move change forward?

Look to Communications and Political Campaigns for Strategies to Get Buy-In

It’s time to borrow from the wisdom of communications and political campaigns to move our association governance—and really all change—forward. The expertise of those who are constantly trying to explain complex issues to the public and garner their support can help associations do the same.

The hard work is not done once the board accepts change recommendations. In some cases, it’s only just beginning.

To garner membership and HOD support on change recommendations that have been approved by the board, try these tips:

  • Make the case for change. Use data and fact check.
  • Leverage your marketing/communications/PR staff for persuasive messaging. Use marketing data to assess what type of communications your member respond to and when they are most likely to engage with your communications (open, click, take action).
  • Talk to your legislative staff, if applicable. They certainly have expertise in sharing complex issues with those who may not completely understand them at first and gaining their support. Have them work with your communications staff on the messaging and creation of a comprehensive communications plan.
  • Have board champions advocate the case for change. Look to past leaders who are a few years removed from board service to serve as champions too. Ask them to post on their social media accounts per the tip below. (Duty of obedience kicks in here too—the board should speak with one voice based on the vote.)
  • Use social media for engagement to supplement your communications. Live videos, Q&A sessions, and daily posts through social media can supplement other engagements like emails and town halls.
  • Update your bylaws so that change doesn’t have to go through the membership or a HOD. (Though a bit tongue in cheek, this is worthwhile if you can manage it.)  Give the Board the authority to make and implement change.  

This may seem overwhelming. And, in the end, all these steps may still lead to the membership or the HOD voting down recommendations that task forces, staff, and the board have already spent many months or even years on.

Widespread governance change that needs the support of membership or a HOD also needs the expertise of communications and political staff to bring it to the finish line. Associations shouldn’t slow down after board approval for change. Instead, this is the time to engage the next level of expertise to help ensure that change, and ultimately the association, can move forward.

Erin Volland, MPA CAE, is a senior consultant who co-leads governance consulting for AMC Consulting Services.

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