Association Strategic Governance, Part 2: Characteristics

Adopted: November 2015

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What is a professional practice statement?

This Professional Practice Statement, developed by the Association Forum, is provided as a management tool for associations and individual association professionals, developed by experts in the industry, and recommended as a means to achieve excellence in managing associations and other not-for-profit organizations.


Association governance exists to identify and achieve the organizational mission, goals and strategic outcomes using a structure that is strategically focused, flexible and depoliticized to produce those outcomes.

The governance principles expressed in this professional practice statement have universal application,allowing for flexibility in the way they are implemented to adjust for each association’s organizational culture. Note: There are two parts to Association Strategic Governance; we encourage that both be read for maximum benefit.

Policy Statement

In the document, “Association Strategic Governance, Part I: Functions,” Association Forum describes overall, effective governance as being plan driven, having board accountability, being knowledge-based, and having volunteers and staff (working) in partnership. The first document then delves into five primary functions: scanning, planning, oversight, adjustment and board self-assessment.

In this document, Association Forum focuses on the attributes or “characteristics” of effective governance. Both documents are designed to be used together to help governing boards achieve the results required to guide organizations in meeting their highest potential.

Characteristics of Strategic Governance

The following are desirable characteristics for strategic governance: Being focused, results-oriented, skills-based, knowledge-based, empowered, accountable, structurally effective and operationally efficient, and having a strong volunteer-staff partnership.

Focused: Not all volunteer groups are governing units. Governing boards work primarily at the strategic level, crafting policy and developing goals and strategies for board approval. Other volunteer-populated units are operational, implementing plan-specified programs and initiatives where member expertise or action is needed. The board’s governing focus is organizational scanning, planning, oversight and adjustment. Other governing units perform some mix of those same four functions depending on the outcomes they are assigned to achieve, but with a specific topical or program focus. Whether they are governing or operating, all units should have a clearly defined set of responsibilities and outcomes to achieve. These may be set forth in the bylaws, policies and procedures, job descriptions, strategic plan or other “scope of responsibility” documents.

Results-Oriented: Every governing unit should be given clearly defined outcomes to achieve. Assigned outcomes may come from the strategic and/or operating plans or from ad hoc descriptions from the board. Rather than a “to do” list, outcome statements should describe the end result the board expects from the group, the time frame for achievement and the resources available to the group for its work (budget, staff support, outside resources).

Skills-Based: Governance participants at all levels need to have or acquire specific skills to fulfill their governance responsibilities. A standard set of skills and/or experience will be required regardless of the governance position held. Other governance positions will require skills unique to the position. Governance identifies the skills needed to produce results in each governance position and makes those skills part of election or appointment criteria. Ongoing learning should be a priority for governance units. Members should be directed to or provided with opportunities for leadership training to prepare them for the governance positions they want to hold.

Knowledge-Based: Organizational success takes precedence over individual interests, personal agendas and parochial preference. Greater reliance is placed on quantitative and qualitative research involving various stakeholder groups and less upon opinion and anecdotal experience of those at the table at the time. Additional participant roles, beyond official governance bodies, facilitate knowledge-based decision making. Methods for obtaining knowledge from additional participants may include temporarily convened groups with special expertise, such as:

  • Open forums, town halls and ask/tell the leader panel discussions.
  • Electronic referenda, opinion polls and surveys.
  • Surveys of practices and experiences of similarly-focused associations.
  • Idea-generating think-tank groups.
  • Reactor panels.
  • Focus groups.
  • Quick-results, informal work groups.
  • New product or service roll-out testers (pilots).

Empowered: Governing bodies are empowered to produce results. They are given:

  • Clearly defined outcomes to achieve.
  • Timeframes and progress milestones.
  • Resources: financial and staff support at levels that enable their work.
  • Authority to act within established scope of assigned work, timeframes and resource parameters.
  • Bringing in non-member participants is considered when that would enhance the availability of knowledge, expertise, buy-in, influence or support.

Accountable: Governance bodies are held accountable for the work assigned to them. They are expected to produce results and are held accountable for doing so. Failure to do so should result in remedialaction, which may include: reconstituting the governing body or sunsetting it in favor of another approach to the work. Elected and appointed governance participants are held accountable for fulfilling their assigned role within the governing bodies on which they serve. Failure to do so results in remedialaction which may include removal and/or ineligibility for reelection or reappointment.

Structurally Effective: The governing structure is kept to the minimum number of governing bodies necessary to produce strategic plan results. Additional member participation can come from roles beyond official governance positions.

  • A governing unit exists only when it has a specific assignment to complete or quantifiable out come to achieve.
  • Standing committees perform functions that require ongoing (every-year or all-year-long) member expertise. When unable to complete assigned work or when their underlying need no longer exists, they are reconfigured or sunsetted in favor of another approach. Associations will need to refer to their bylaws and procedures to determine proper standing committee modification procedures.
  • Temporary or one-time project teams, task forces, special committees, and other adhoc work groups are deployed for intermittent or short-term member effort. They are sunset as soon as their assigned work is complete.

Operationally Efficient: Governing bodies are flexible, employing a minimum of procedural rules. They employ the most expedient, cost-effective methods for getting their work done. Work methods may vary depending on the group’s preferred work style and the nature of their work. Governing bodies regularly self-assess; see section under “Functions of Strategic Governance.” When their work is not producing adequate results within assigned timeframes, resources, etc., changes are made to get things on course. The governing body’s leader or chair handles individual performance problems expeditiously to keep them from impairing group achievement.

A Partnership with Staff: An association’s staff comprises skilled, association management professionals who are, as such, treated as partners in governance. Their work is closely integrated with those of governing bodies. Sound strategic governance relies upon staff expertise. At a minimum, the association chief executive and, where applicable, the senior management team should be active participants in all aspects of scanning, planning, oversight and adjustment activities. In short, staff can be relied upon to: 

  • Develop information for governing unit knowledge-based decision making.
  • Provide governing units with advice and counsel in the areas of their expertise.
  • Coordinate the work of governing units.
  • Oversee operating outcomes and report on staff and governing unit progress.
See Association Strategic Governance, Part I: Functions for additional information.


The Association Forum expressly disclaims any warranties or guarantees, expressed or implied, and shall not be liable for damages of any kind, in connection with the material, information, or procedures set forth in these Statements or for reliance on the contents of the Statements. In issuing these Statements, the Association Forum is not engaged in rendering legal, accounting, or other professional services. If such services are required, the services of a competent professional should be sought.


Professional Practice Statement on Fiduciary and Management Duties for the Association, Adopted: March 2012, Association Forum.

Professional Practice Statement on Governance Structure, Adopted: October 2013, Association Forum.

Professional Practice Statement on Mission and Goals, Adopted: October 2012, Association Forum.

Professional Practice Statement on Strategic Planning, Adopted: October 2013, Association Forum.

Professional Practice Statement on Performance Measurement & Metrics, Adopted: October 2013, Association Forum.

Professional Practice Statement on the Facilitation of Effective Board Decision Making, Adopted: March 2011, Association Forum.

Results Now for Nonprofits: Strategic, Operating, and Governance Planning, by Mark Light, February 8, 2011.

7 Measures of Success: What Remarkable Associations Do That Others Don’t, August 2006, ASAE & The Center for Association Leadership.

The Will to Govern Well: Knowledge, Trust & Nimbleness, 2nd Edition, 2010, by Glenn H. Tecker, Paul D. Meyer, Bud Crouch, and Leigh Wintz, CAE, ASAE.

Case studies taken from ASAE: The Center for Association Leadership.

“9 Steps to Stronger Board Performance,” Associations Now, January 2011.

“Intelligence: How to Review Your Association’s Governance System,” Associations Now, January

Type: Professional Practice Statement