It’s been said that associations are living entities, with memberships that change constantly in their demographics, needs, and desires. As a result, board of directors meetings, where associations analyze the changes among their membership and industry and then set the plans for upcoming member offerings—including in-person events—must continually change as well.
Brittany Olson, director of meetings for AMPED Association Management, has worked on association events for a decade, and in just the past few months coordinated and executed board of directors meetings for several association clients. Here are the areas where she’s helped her clients modify these strategic-planning meetings so that they continue to fulfill their critically important roles for those associations.
Working Your Way In
Naturally, an association’s annual event is a central topic at most executive and advisory board meetings. Olson suggests that planners be present for as much of that conversation as possible. “The annual represents such a large part of member value, and planners have to make sure board members know that their role is about much more than just contracts and menus and AV,” she says. “I use the discussions from board meetings to execute the longer-term vision of where leadership wants the association to go through the annual event. It can’t happen all in one year, but having their end goals in mind about the next two, five, and 10 years helps me take a few concrete steps each year to get there. Hopefully a planner has the opportunity to hear those conversations, or at least has debriefing sessions afterwards to know what the priorities are in the bigger picture.”
One priority for most associations is increased diversity and inclusion. But as diversity within association memberships grows, two things must happen: The association’s annual event must account for it, and the executive and advisory boards must mirror it in order to build a strong annual event and be effective in other tasks too.
Olson emphasizes to her clients, however, that diversity moves down multiple avenues. “There is strong interest among our clients in engaging an increasingly diverse group of board members and advisors over time,” she notes. “That means women and minority groups and younger generations providing their perspectives and opinions and input from their field. But another part of diversity is being cognizant of having diverse backgrounds and cultures represented, not just a certain number of male and female or young and old. That's also important regarding the strategic alliance partners we consider bringing into board meetings. A variety of cultural experiences and other life experiences improves discussions the board has about everything, including the annual meeting. I try to be part of the conversation and make recommendations to help the present board identify strong characteristics needed for that board, and find a direction on what their ideal candidates should offer.”
Maximizing Meeting Effectiveness
To get the most from everyone who attends a board meeting, “we aim to generate a lot of open and candid conversation based on guided discussion topics,” Olson says. “That is so helpful for generating ideas and moving the association's initiatives forward.” From a logistical perspective, “we structure the meeting so that there's first a conversation with everyone at the same table,” Olson says. “Then we break into smaller groups in separate rooms or even just at separate tables. Those smaller groups focusing on specific aspects is really important because then we come back together and summarize what each smaller group generated. From there, we prioritize topics based on the commonalities found across the smaller groups, and we have another full-group discussion about strategic initiatives that would address those common themes.”
Interestingly, Olson and her association-management staff used to facilitate the full-group discussions for clients’ board meetings, but recently have shifted to independent facilitators. “Having that truly outside perspective can generate new and different directions for conversations and push board members beyond what they have thought about before.” To find effective facilitators, Olson looks for people connected to the association industry, “who certainly know what boards do on a regular basis and what boards need to get going. But we do try to get someone outside of that association's industry or specialty; for instance, a non-medical person for a medical association. They will know enough about associations in general, but also ask questions about things that board members might assume everyone knows.”
In short, Olson makes sure that facilitators guide the discussion rather than actively lead it. “The conversation should not be formal and should not involve a data dump. Either ahead of time or through the facilitator, share just enough data with everyone to get them to contribute their perspective to the conversation.”