From their earliest days, not-for-profit trade and professional associations have been democratic institutions. One of the most important leadership skills required to serve as an effective volunteer is an understanding of how democratic processes work. Often we look to our public institutions as role models. Sometimes, the examples they set leave something to be desired.
Let’s talk about some best practices that successful association leaders can use to ensure their democracy remains healthy and viable:
- Association leaders represent and serve the whole, not just a segment or region of the association. Often association leaders are elected by certain constituencies, geographic or otherwise. The fiduciary duty of loyalty dictates that any director on an association board must put the interests of the entire association first, above and beyond any constituent interest. A prudent director will communicate their constituent’s interests and concerns, but will vote for what is best for the whole.
- Disclosure of conflicts of interest. Conflicts of interest seem not to bother some publicly elected officials, but they should be immediately and completely disclosed in association settings. Conflicts are common, and many are harmless. Regardless, the leadership body should evaluate all actual, apparent or potential conflicts to determine what, if any, steps should be taken to protect the group. The steps might simply be to take the conflict into account, to exclude the conflicted leader from participating in discussion or voting on the matter, or remove the leader from office.
- No counting votes prior to debate. Vote counting is not democracy — it’s politics. Boards of directors should not engage vote counting prior to bringing issues up for a vote. Rather, they should hear and participate in full, thorough and good faith debate of the matter and then decide how to cast their vote.
- Majority rule, minority rights. In general, associations function with one of the bedrock rules of democracy — majority rule. Majority rule is defined as 50% + 1 of votes received from those eligible to vote constitutes a valid vote for or against. Some boards adopt two-thirds standards or consensus standards for voting on certain issues because they believe this protects the minority, but it typically results in an outcome not beneficial to either party. Either the minority is disenfranchised because it cannot change a standard adopted by a two-thirds rule or the minority is given excessive powers to block any action at all if two-thirds cannot be obtained.
- Accept the outcome. Association boards that continually re-litigate issues that are decided fairly end up with anxious members who begin to lose confidence in their elected leaders. This is not to say that sometimes circumstances dictate a vigorous effort to overturn a decision that seems patently unfair or against the best interests of the association members. However, when it becomes clear that the refusal to accept the outcome is merely a difference in philosophical position or just plain sour grapes, the board has a responsibility as a democratic institution to stop going over old ground and instead focus on new issues of concern to the members.
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