A board is not a focus group!

“How many of your members are in management or academic roles?” I asked.

“Fifteen percent.”

Looking around the board table, I then asked, “How many of you are in management or academic roles?”

Almost every hand went up.

Boards are the stewards of the organization, and most, if not all, members of an association board are there to represent the membership.

But typically they aren’t representative of the membership.

They’re making decisions on behalf of the association, and those decisions should be based on robust information, including data. But of course board discussions also draw heavily from personal experience, and heuristics – rules of thumb – drawn from board members’ own careers.

Sitting on a board is often an enormous learning opportunity for this very reason. Board members come in with a wealth of experience, but then they are exposed to oceans of information (membership data, qualitative and quantitative member research, perspectives from other board members, staff reports, and so on) that shows them just how limited their own point of view is.

So it’s very important that board members understand that their own experience needs to be informed and, if necessary, contradicted by the data they see.

One way to help board members recognize this is to show how different they are from members in general. You can pull together some bar charts or web charts to show the comparison graphically.

Some illuminating characteristics to show, if you have the data:

  • Age
  • Seniority
  • Area of practice or focus
  • Size of organization they work in
  • Geography
  • Income

When it comes to the sensitive topics, such as income, just showing the board the average income for members, without an explicit comparison to the board, can elicit a clear reaction around the table.

Another point that can be fascinating is the average member’s awareness of or interest in certain issues. Some topics that board members are intimately aware of, and feel strongly about, may not register for members in the slightest. If you are asking about these topics in a member survey, consider including options of both “no opinion” and “not familiar” and see what the responses are.

Boards will very often emerge as quite different from the general membership. Older, better-off, more senior, more ambitious, sometimes more urban or otherwise concentrated in particular geographies. And that’s absolutely fine.

The point is not to suggest that board members aren’t qualified to make decisions. Of course they are. The purpose of this is to help board members calibrate their own experience, and recognize where they may need to rely more on data and research.

They aren’t a perfectly representative focus group; they’re a decision-making body. And, like all sophisticated decision-makers, they need more information than what’s in their heads when they walk in.

Want to talk about how to help your board work more strategically? Please get in touch. And for our latest white paper, Turning Strategy Into Action: Tactical Planning for Associations, please click here.

Photo by Charles Forerunner, via Unsplash. Used with permission. 

Contact us at meredith@meredithlow.com or call 416-737-3935 to discuss how we might be able to help.


We offer resources to help leaders of associations and other not-for-profits think about their approach to strategy and governance, from various perspectives.