The role of an association board is to provide governance, leadership and oversight to the organization to ensure it effectively fulfills its mission and operates responsibly and sustainably. What that looks like in reality varies greatly across associations. One of the most impactful variations is the primary role of the board: strategic vs. operational. A strategic board primarily focuses on long-term planning, setting the organization’s mission, vision and strategic goals. They are responsible for making high-level decisions related to the overall direction of the company. On the other hand, an operational board concentrates on day-to-day activities, management and execution of the company’s operations. They deal with tactical and immediate issues that affect the business.
Of course, it’s rarely so clear-cut in reality! Strategic vs. operational is not an either-or option, but rather a long continuum, and most associations fall somewhere in between. Both roles are necessary, but who takes on each role varies greatly by association. Membership composition, volunteer capacity, staff structure, financial resources and many other factors influence where a board can and needs to be along that continuum.
If your board doesn’t have a well-defined role here are some questions to consider. These questions may also be helpful if you want to influence your board to shift to a different point along the continuum.
- How much of the board’s time is spent on discussions regarding strategic issues, partnerships, or major investments? How much time is spent on daily operations and process improvements?
- Does the board focus on long-term goals of several years or more that position the organization for future success? Is the board’s focus more immediate on quarterly or annual goals and objectives?
- Are board members industry experts and thought leaders with experience in strategic planning and leadership? Do board members have direct responsibility for the operations of the association?
- What role does the board play with association volunteers/committees – providing general oversight and strategic direction? Or direct supervision?
- Does the association have ample resources for staffing and a robust volunteer structure that can handle the operations of the organization? Or does the association’s board need to be involved in operational management?
Operational vs. strategic, many factors influence the focus of an association board. Associations fluctuate over time as they grow, circumstances change, staff and leadership change, the industry evolves, etc. The intentionality of recognizing where your board exists, ensuring that’s the most appropriate place for the association’s reality, and striving for shifts as needed, are more important than where you fall on the continuum.