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The Downside of Having Constituents as Association Board Members

September 23, 2013
by Terry Axelrod
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We all thought this was the right way to go: having the executive directors of the member organizations serve on the board of their state or national association. In fact, it's often written into the by-laws of many behavioral healthcare groups and into the pre-requisites for receiving government and other funding.

I'm not speaking of having individual consumers of behavioral healthcare services sit on that group's board. I'm speaking of having the executive directors of those organizations serving on the boards of higher level, free standing 501c-3 groups, like statewide or regional associations of mental health organizations or national nonprofits.

I've been approached twice in the last two weeks—once by a statewide behavioral health association and once by a national organization—seeking advice about how to structure their fundraising efforts. The funding sources that gave rise to each of these organizations have significantly reduced their support, for example government or pharma. Yet these "umbrella" organizations have carved out critical roles as conveners, advocates, and sources of public awareness and education, roles needed now more than ever.

Realizing it is now time to get serious about doing their own fundraising, these umbrella groups found their hands softly tied. In both cases, their boards were comprised nearly one hundred percent of executive directors of their member or affiliated organizations, whose first fundraising priorities are, by necessity, their own shops.

While a board comprised of executive directors of member groups may have made sense back when the funding was flowing freely to the top tier, that same board becomes a real liability now for fundraising.

The fix: diversifying the board composition by adding people who are not EDs of member groups, such as smart family members of consumers, business people, or retired professionals in the field. Choose individuals with no inherent conflict of interest. Choose individuals who understand and can passionately champion the distinct role that an umbrella organization plays today.

With the significant shifts in public funding, it's time for these top tier organizations to take a hard and honest look at their board composition and alter the by-laws to encourage, not merely permit, more diversification of board representation.

We find that these "new" board members are reluctant to be the first and only non-constituent member. Better to bring them on two or more at a time. It signals your intention to shift the composition. Adding one corporate member to an otherwise all-constituent board (in this case, all EDs) marks that one new board member transparently as the sole funder on the board. Odds are the mission of the top tier organization has shifted enough that there is a whole new group of people who might value serving on that board. People who truly believe in the mission of the umbrella group and who are happy to help with its fundraising.

Please comment below: Do you serve on a board of a broader association? How have you advised that group to conduct its fundraising? How have you seen this work?


Terry Axelrod

CEO, Benevon

Terry Axelrod


Terry Axelrod is founder and CEO of Benevon. She has more than thirty years of experience in the...

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