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So, Are You Thinking to Serve?

Antonio Rebelo, AIA
2017 President-Elect 

Many of us have thought on one occasion or another to serve on a Board. It is a natural desire for someone that belongs to an association or a group to eventually want to go a step further and participate in a greater capacity beyond being a member. Some of us have joined various committees and even boards when in school (such as the AIAS for example), or throughout our lives since school, and many of us have been exposed to boards in one way or another just by showing up and occasionally participating at member or community meetings with various groups or interests surrounding our private and professional lives.

Yet, some of us have never been exposed to this level of leadership and are simply curious about what is like serving on a board. If that is the case with you, this article is for you. An excellent workshop that I attended this month during Grassroots 2017, the annual American Institute of Architects leadership conference, entitled “Board Responsibilities in Governance” by Bob Harris, CAE, was the highlight of that terrific three-day conference for me. It inspired me to share with you some observations of what it means to serve on a Board and some of the unique aspects associated with governing a volunteer, membership organization such as our AIA Potomac Valley Chapter. 

The reasons for wanting to eventually serve on a Board differ from person to person. Many of us don’t think about it until a colleague or friend invites us to serve, but then we have to ask why. Some of the reasons people want to join a board include having a greater impact on the governance of their association by taking a position of leadership; adding a prestigious resume builder for their careers; networking possibilities; simply wanting to give back to their association by serving it; or a combination of the above.

From all the reasons listed, to be an effective board member, service to their members’ community must be the reason that eventually rises above all others. After all, contrary to what some might think, a Board of Directors – any board - exists only to serve its members and the community, not the other way around. The role of the Board is to advance the mission, serve the members and protect the component’s assets.

So, for starters, what exactly is the purpose of the Board and the responsibilities of the Directors? To answer this question, it’s important to remember that the Board governs and Staff manages. Volunteer leaders – directors – are responsible for the direction of the organization. The Board governs, develops policy and sets a course. Management is responsible for the administration of the organization. Staff partners with the Board to advance goals and strategies while taking care of the daily administrative needs unique to the non-profit organization.

To quote Bob Harris, the Board of Directors should be thinking “at 50,000 feet” – big picture. Task forces, work groups and committees should be thinking “at 25,000 feet” – in charge of concrete assignments. Staff should be thinking at “10,000 feet” – how to execute daily administrative and organizational tasks to achieve the goals set by the Board.

Mission and Values
Back to basics: the vision and mission statements should frame all discussions. What is a vision statement? It’s an inspiring statement of image and success.

AIA’s vision statement: “Driving positive change through the power of design.”

AIA Potomac Valley’s vision statement: “Making a better environment through leadership in architecture.”

What is a mission statement? It’s the organization’s purpose for existence and should be concisely stated. The mission statement should reflect who we are, who we serve and what we offer. Our AIA-Potomac Valley’s chapter mission statement is:

“We empower members to advance their roles in service to society; act as a collective voice to help cultivate the future of the architectural profession; foster innovation and sustainability in design; are a knowledge resource to members and the public, raising awareness of the value of the architecture profession. We:
Lead member activities, industry collaborations and public discourse;
Educate members, decision makers and the public;
Speak with authority, credibility and expertise; and
Advocate for architects, the profession and good design.

Wow. Think about these statements for a moment. According to Harris, if you are a board member, you should have these statements on a card in your wallet with you at all times and you should be ready to be an advocate for your chapter. You should be able to explain why the organization exists and what it does for its members. It exists to improve the community, to promote safety and welfare and to provide its members with the terrific membership value of advocacy for our profession. You have to remember that the “AIA is the only organization that has been providing architects with tools and resources to assist them in their careers, engaging civic and government leaders and the public to find solutions to pressing issues facing our communities, institutions, nation and the world, for 160 years!”

As a Board member, you should be thinking in terms of fiduciary duty, governance, policy and position development and be visionary. One mistake of governance is to think only on what you, or the Board, can achieve during your immediate term in office. A Board member must think beyond his or her term in office - with a future focus, to properly serve the interests of the members and the organization. This is called Strategic Planning. A strategic plan focuses the Board on mission and goals for three to five years. Its serves as a road map for the organization. A good strategic plan according to Harris should not only be aligned with the vision, mission and values of the organization, it should contain clear goals which are the priorities to advance the mission. Usually between 3 to 7 goals maximum are advisable, so as not to deplete resources. Then, strategies, which are fresh and continued approaches to achieve the mission and goals - are delineated. A director is usually assigned to monitor and report on the plan progress, this person is often called a “plan champion”.

Risk Management
Because most new directors are normally excellent at management but have minimal understanding of the nuances of governance, according to Harris, it is important for board members to be aware of potential risks and ways to reduce or avoid them.

For example, understanding the different roles of the Board of Directors and the various committees under the Board is important. Like the Board, committees are made up of volunteers that must meet, make motions for action and keep minutes. Organizations should streamline or eliminate all but essential committees, and should align their work with goals in the strategic plan, and preferably with short-term assignments. Why? Because unlike the Board, committees do not have the authority to decide, or speak for the organization.  A committee can become a liability to the Board and the organization through the concept of apparent authority which arises when anyone, be it a board chair or committee member, without actual authority behaves as if they have authority and could be perceived as such by members of the organization or the public.

Authority rests with the chief elected officer and the Board as a whole. If there is any dissent in a board discussion, for example, as a board member you are free to disagree and have it recorded in the meeting minutes, but when the board votes on that motion, you must publicly support the board decision’s and treat the discussion with confidentiality.

Other potential risks include antitrust violations which can occur when two or more persons from the same industry or profession discuss suppliers, processes, prices or operations. You must remove yourself from any conversation that would change how business is conducted because of an agreement among competitors. Finally, other potential risks can involve conflicts of interest. If you become aware of a potential conflict of interest, the only way to avoid it is to disclose it at the start of the term or immediately when the potential conflict of interest arises and recuse yourself from participating on the activity or vote, if necessary.

I hope this article has been useful to help demystify the duties and responsibilities for those planning to serve, or refresh anyone already serving on a Board. Most of the terminology used here came directly from the workshop by Bob Harris that I attended and the extremely useful and concise handout titled “Board Responsibilities.” Volunteering on a Board can be a very rewarding and meaningful way to serve your profession and your community in this challenging era where we are compelled to think globally and act locally. What better way to act locally than serving on the board of your local AIA chapter? By virtue of the structure already in place, you can relax when you are better informed of your duties and responsibilities and you can concentrate on building on the ground already laid out for you by your predecessors who have served the chapter. Are you ready to serve?

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