When Should the CEO Tell the Board, “No”?

Crowds of people protested against environment pollution in outdoorThe CEO reports to the board. Right? Yes. So if the board directs the CEO to do something, he/she should do it. Right? Not always.

When should the CEO say No? When the CEO’s responsibility to the organization is in conflict with a directive from the board.

How might this occur?

When the board directs the CEO to take an action that puts the association and/or the CEO at risk of meaningful liability or seriously threatens the sustainability of the organization. Examples include jeopardization or violation of contractual agreements and violations of relevant legislation and bylaws.

Here’s a real life example.

A client of ours was experiencing a cash flow challenge. The CEO and CFO informed the board and made recommendations. The board ignored the recommendations and instead, instructed the CEO to immediately draw down the entire amount of the organization’s line of credit. The CEO and the CFO were both aware that this action would trigger an emergency alert at the bank, resulting in a negative outcome for the organization. Despite this knowledge, the CEO immediately executed the board’s instructions.

The bank, predictably, responded by cancelling the line of credit and demanding immediate pay-back of the funds drawn. The organization narrowly averted bankruptcy and limped along until another organization took it over.  Predictably, the board fired the CEO and the CFO.

The members were not well served. Had the board followed the recommendation of the CEO the outcome would have been different. What should the CEO have done instead?

Before executing the board’s instructions, the CEO should have advised the board that he/she would be requesting a confirmation of the board’s direction in writing with an acknowledgement of the advice provided by the CEO and the risk associated with executing the board’s instructions. The CEO should then have communicated with the board via email. The email would have reiterated the advice that the CEO provided and requested confirmation of the board’s decision to direct a different path.

Verbal conversations will be remembered differently by participants after the fact. It’s human nature.

When the board is requested to confirm a questionable directive in writing, where the consequences are clearly articulated, it inspires sober second thought. Had this happened, the results for the organization might have been different.

Is this a career limiting decision for the CEO?  Quite possibly. Let’s not sugar-coat the outcome.  The CEO’s job is to accept the risk of job loss to fulfill his/her obligation. Humans are complicated and directors are all human. But they don’t have your knowledge. That’s why they hired you. Have the courage to take the personal risk to fulfill your obligations to the association you serve.


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Attracting and Retaining Sponsors – Remember the Holy Trinity

trinityYour ideal sponsor partnership is not about “selling” your event to a sponsor. It’s all about delivering value to each major stakeholder; the “holy trinity” is that crucial intersection between your association, your sponsors and your members. When you get it right, all three stakeholders are receiving value from the relationship.


  1. What’s in it for the sponsor? This is your sponsor value proposition (SVP). It answers how this partnership will help your sponsor to (a) Sell their products and services, and/or (b) Enhance their brand by aligning it with yours?
  2. What’s in it for your association? How will this partnership (a) Enable you to deliver more value to your members, and/or (b) Increase the visibility of your association?
  3. What’s in it for your members? How will the association’s relationship with this sponsor help your members to (a) Learn new skills, and/or (b) Find a product or services that will help their organization?

If you can nail each element of the holy trinity, you’ve got a powerful partnership.

When you’re considering your value to sponsors, don’t forget to include both event-specific and year-round opportunities.

Year-round or single event? Think about the best fit for your sponsor. Is the right partnership for this sponsor a year-round relationship where they have visibility with your members at every event and every member communication? Or is it best for them to have relevant visibility at a single event?

And don’t forget; hold onto the crown jewels. Make sure that your year-round sponsors receive a “jewel” above and beyond that available to event sponsors. Perhaps this is a speaking opportunity or unique visibility. Never sell the “jewel in the crown” on a stand-alone basis.

Find out more about your SVP.

A strong SVP is also one of the 8 elements of the High Performance Membership OrganizationTM

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Are You a Good Host? Or do you leave members to figure it out on their own?

WelcomeAssociations spend a lot of energy trying to attract members, engage volunteers and recruit directors and staff.  But what do you do once you have captured them? Do you make them feel welcome and valued at events? Are you a good “host” or do you leave members to figure it out on their own?

Onboarding is an essential, yet often overlooked, part of association management. It is critical to ensure immediate engagement and ensure members are familiar with the resources and opportunities offered and to feel that they fit within the organization. Otherwise, you risk losing their support before the first year is over.

Turn the focus onto them by anticipating their expectations, needs and wants and help them to fulfill these:

  1. Identify and articulate the Member Value Proposition (MVP). Ensure leaders understand the MVP of the association, and can easily state how the association addresses member needs.
  2. Create a new member onboarding process. Ensure they receive extra attention in the first 12 months to get them engaged.
  3. Director, volunteer and staff training. Ensure that your association leaders are trained to be good hosts at events.  This means “working the room” at association events, introducing members to each other and make everyone feel valued and welcome.

The time and effort spent on the front end being a good host and designing good onboarding processes will pay off immediately and contribute to your sustainability and success.

Find out more about your MVP.

A strong MVP is also one of the 8 elements of the High Performance Membership OrganizationTM

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Unknown Unknowns


When clients come to us when they are under stress. They are stressed because they are moving to a new management model, from volunteer management to professional management. They may be under stress as they have just been forced to layoff staff, which is tough on all concerned. They may be under stress because the organization is not doing as well as it had been in the past and yet the core numbers are consistent. What ever the reason, they are under stress and it is our duty to reassure them and to make the bad man go away.

Stress is a killer, not only of individuals, but of organizations, creativity, collaboration and that great undefinable “fraternity”. We deal with this by assisting the development of a strategic plan, “where do you want the organization to be in three years”. We have already asked this question in our interview process. What? You interview your clients? Well of course we do. When we are asked to “present” to a board because they are interested in hiring us, we treat it as a job interview. We are not trying to sell them on how great we are; we are trying to see if it would be a good fit. The cost of staffing up, the investment of time in “onboarding” a new client, the stress to our staff to learn the behaviour of their members is difficult and we would not entertain the idea unless we thought it a good fit. Now excuse me for being crass, but it is a lot like dating. If this is successful we will be spending a lot of time together, so shouldn’t we have common interests? So a coffee, a drink, a movie, dinner then after a few weeks one could hope to find a place in their medicine cabinet for your toothbrush. So we ask the question “where do you see this organization in three years?” That answers a lot of questions. Are they in survival mode? Do they have a vision? What are their strengths, their dangers, their opportunities?

Year one is stabilization. Changing management will open a lot of wounds. We ensure their bylaws are relevant to their current needs. I am certain that you know of organizations where certain directors have served “forever” even if the term of office is 3, 5, or 7 years. We ensure they are up to date on their banking requirements, and their government filing requirements. You would be surprised at how many organizations do not have their current directors filed with the government or CRA.  Believe it or not, the CRA is actually checking who signs the tax return now. We implement systems and policies. Update and modernize the membership data base. Note that when you thought you had 750 members, 350 of them were non-paying affiliates or had not paid in years. That explains why membership revenue has been dropping. This requires work, and our staff is familiar with this. We put together an operational plan for the year. When is membership renewal? When was the last membership increase? When is the AGM? When is the conference? What sort of commitments has the organization made and how long is the term of those commitments? Can they be renegotiated? How many monthly events are there and what is the nature of those events? Do we have the right type of insurance? Do the bylaws indemnify the directors? We introduce the new management team to the membership. Who does what, who to call. Our goal in year one is to protect the organization, its directors and to stabilize the member experience and create the base from which to improve it.

Years two and three are growth years. This is when we start to implement the vision of the board. Where do you want to go? OK, now let’s look at available resources. Can we do what you want with the resources at hand? No? Then we need to prioritize. We communicate this to the members. What is the organization doing? Why? How did they do? It doesn’t all have to be success, it does have to be attempted and reported. People understand failure, but they will not accept non-participation. That is why they are members, for the organization to stand up on their behalf. We will involve our government relations department, our marketing department, our event department, our compliance department. Who ever we need to examine where the organization needs to be aware of issues and opportunities. This is where the fun begins, but even though this is implemented in year two, the planning begins in year one. We are aware of proposed legislation which may impact the industry because we put processes in place to be aware of that. We are in constant touch with the board, or executive committee related to their industry, the organization, upcoming events, potential issues, all the items that a professional management team would provide to the directors of a professional organization. The stress drops away as the directors now feel much more comfortable with their roles, and the fate of their organization.

As Donald Rumsfeld, former US Secretary of Defense, once pointed out “There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.” It is the unknown unknowns which cause the most stress.

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Tips for Chairing a Meeting

chairing a meetingThe primary role of a chair is to:

  1. Ensure the agenda is followed and completed on time
  2. Ensure the meeting stays on track
  3. Ensure both sides of a discussion are aired
  4. Ensure the necessary decisions are reached

Some tips for better-run meetings include:

  • Ensure clarity; explain the overall purpose at the start of the meeting, specific discussion items, identify action items, roles, responsibilities and timelines;
  • Create a balance between people, issues and time;
  • Talk less, listen and facilitate decision-making without imposing your position on the group;
  • Be impartial ensuring that your leadership position does not tilt the scales in favour of your position over others;
  • Ensure meetings are run in the spirit of fairness, equality and mutual respect;
  • Keep the meeting on track: remind people of the agenda items and intervene if they digress;
  • Manage the meeting time and work within the allotted timeframe. If more time is required, determine as a group whether it needs to allocate more time to the topic, reschedule another meeting or move to the next topic;
  • Encourage and manage participant contributions by creating a balance of speakers. Allow everyone to have an opportunity to speak and be part of the discussion;
  • Encourage members who oppose something to propose an alternative;
  • Follow up and review the agreed action points in between meetings; and
  • Review the effectiveness of the meeting to ensure future meetings are effective and efficient.

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Is Your Accountant Smoking Something? Who says you will lose your NFP status with a reserve fund?

Pink Piggy BankIf you are told your not-for-profit status is in jeopardy by having a surplus or an operating reserve of more than 3-6 months, it is time to find a new accountant! The Canada Revenue Agency has made no statement ever about the amount of operating reserves that is acceptable for not-for-profits.

To determine the optimal reserve amount, High Performance Membership Organizations™ assess their potential risks, strategic projects and opportunities. For most organizations three – six months is simply adequate for shut down. However, the organization needs resources to take advantage of opportunities and to survive a challenging economic environment.

It is also important to have a board approved Operating Reserve Policy which articulates the minimum reserve amount, identifies the purpose of the reserve, defines any restrictions related to certain funds, and outlines when and how the funds can be used. In addition to ensuring transparent processes, it also provides a level of understanding as to why the organization is maintaining reserves.

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Using Earned Media to Increase Your Association’s Visibility

pic-media-strategySuccessful earned media is public media exposure that results from your successful efforts to create content that (a) provides journalists with a story that is sufficiently intriguing to their audience to get published and (b) segues effectively to your association’s messaging and increases your visibility.

How do you “earn” media exposure? It’s free but it’s not cheap. It’s not cheap because it takes constant vigilance and creative thinking to develop stories that are both media-worthy and effectively communicate your messaging. This requires the effort of staff members or external consultants.

Here are 3 tips:

  1. Use Google Alerts or a similar service to inform you of stories that you can piggy-back onto and segue to your messaging.
  2. Be prepared to repond as soon as a headline breaks. In order to do this you need to be well-prepared.
    1. Develop your top key messages first. What information do you need to communicate? e.g. The province needs more social workers or, we need to reduce the barriers to cross-border trade.
    2. Develop language that will provide a segue from likely headlines to your messaging. For example, let’s say that your key message is that Manitoba residents would be better off if the province had more social workers. The headlines most likely to provide a natural segue to this message would be “bad news” stories in which an individual falls through the cracks in the system and suffers a negative outcome.
    3. Contact the journalist who wrote the story and offer one of your trained spokespeople as a commentator. Ensure they’re well briefed before you get a call back!

A typical segue to use for all stories of this type might contain these 3 elements:

  • “We’re so sorry to hear that <this unfortunate event> took place on <date> at <location>.
  • “Unfortunately this might have been avoided. We have so few social workers in <the relevant system/location>, their case loads are far beyond acceptable levels. Unless the situation changes, unfortunate events like this are likely to continue to occur.
  • “Fortunately, the solution is both simple and cost-effective. Studies show that social workers actually save the province money <insert data>. By increasing the ratio of social workers to case files by xx% we could avoid an estimated <xxx tragic situation description> each year.…and so on.

Let me leave you with 4 steps to success from Warren Weeks of Weeks Media

  1. Ask yourself: Why do we want media coverage? What do we hope to accomplish?
  2. Who are we trying to speak to and what do we want them to do?
  3. Write the story. What will make an interesting read for your audience? (refer to #2, above)
  4. Which journalists should you pitch the story to? Do your research. Look at what they’ve published and ensure their audience is a fit with your target audiences.

Read our blog on visibility for more on this topic.

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