Virtual Governance: Making the Move Swiftly, Nimbly, and Effectively

By Association Management Center 

For many associations, the chaos that COVID-19 brought meant rereading bylaws to obtain clarity around the authority to conduct business virtually, moving large governing body meetings to later in the year, or even amending governing documents to delegate authority back to the board.

While association leaders were faced with many challenges around shifting their business to provide value in a virtual space, their boards of directors were turning over. An essential part of the new board member transition is their orientation. The importance of a board member’s work in advancing strategy and their legal obligations haven’t changed. With all of these shifts, the need for board members to understand their role and be prepared to participate at their highest potential is just as—if not arguably more—important now than it was before the start of the pandemic.

Benefits of a Virtual Board Meeting

A high-performing organization, the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT), understood the importance of preparing board members to get the work done when they partnered with Association Management Center (AMC) for an engaging and effective virtual board orientation session. IFT’s mission of advancing the science of food and its applications across the global food system is incredibly important in a pandemic world, and the strategies to achieve that mission will certainly look different today than they did months ago. The more prepared board members are to contribute, the more successful IFT will be in adapting their strategies to meet that mission. This meant transforming their face-to-face board orientation program into a highly effective and interactive virtual program that was customized to support IFT’s culture.

“AMC collaborated with our staff team to quickly shift our in-person board orientation to a virtual program,” said Kate Dockins, CAE, IOM, senior vice president of Membership Experiences at IFT. “They served as partners in facilitating content that leveraged technology to ensure active participation and engagement of all attendees.”

Focusing the educational content for the virtual session to allow for as much engagement in the orientation process as possible became critical. Sending articles ahead of time to review is often part of the orientation program prework, but in the virtual space a video on fiduciary duties was also created as part of the prework. This ensured the scheduled meeting time for the board was focused. You always take the risk of people not doing their pre-work, but it is a risk worth taking when building a virtual board session.

Adapting Face-to-Face Content to a Virtual Board Room

The value of the learning that takes place during a discussion cannot be overestimated. Thankfully, virtual platforms like Zoom understand this, too, and have options like breakout rooms, which allow for small group discussions as part of a larger meeting. IFT was able to pre-assign participants into breakout rooms as they would have with face-to-face discussion groups. They also preassigned discussion scenarios to foster mentorship and engagement of new board members, which is typically done in-person as well.

Something not to be overlooked when building a virtual board orientation is the culture of the board and organization. IFT’s board culture is very participatory, and in the virtual setting, the board members often spoke openly rather than using options like chat or hand-raising. Knowing the preferred methods of engagement enabled AMC to customize the session to fit IFT board members’ participation style.

Focusing on the content and layering in the culture led to a session that was engaging and educational. Participants asked thoughtful questions and provided valuable examples to support themes throughout the virtual session. In both the small group discussions and the full group, board members shared their feedback and experiences to ensure the session was individualized to the IFT experience.

Flexibility When Planning Ahead

As is done with every session,  staff and volunteer feedback was analyzed after the session, and enhancements have already been made for future virtual sessions.

“Both our current board officers and new board members noted high satisfaction with the information shared, but specifically noted the strategies used to involve participants and cultivate a forum for discussion,” said Dockins. “A wonderful example for us to mimic as we proceed with more virtual board engagement in this ‘next normal’.”

Will we eventually return to face-to-face board meetings and board orientations? Undoubtedly. We don’t know when or what they will look like exactly, but they will happen again. Associations will need to remain flexible in this new environment and be ready to offer virtual and/or hybrid board development opportunities as necessary.

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