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Chapter Governance: How It Works in the National Capital Area

July 20, 2011|By Roger Nokes
Remember that quote from Margaret Mead on the importance of a small group of thoughtful and committed people? She said it was the only way that has ever changed the world. From my perspective, it’s also the only way to sustain a grassroots organization at the local level. Of the many variables that can determine the success of a UNA-USA chapter, perhaps the most significant is the strength and dedication of its board of directors.  


Viewed from UNA’s headquarters, however, this fact is both good and frustrating. After all, we provide materials and templates, offer suggestions and organize conference calls, but we cannot guarantee the capacity of a local chapter board if it is not functioning optimally. For example, in any given week, we hear from many chapter leaders who are having trouble finding good, qualified, dedicated people to serve as members of their board.

So, what can be done?

Friends at our DC, Maryland and Virginia chapter, who make up the UNA National Capital Area (UNA-NCA), offer a clear model on how to ensure board effectiveness.

A few years ago, they set up a governance committee, which seems to have grown out of the chapter’s former nominating committee.  The nominating committee’s responsibility was to find potential candidates to serve on the board. After years of working with this standard model, the chapter realized that something else was needed. According to chapter president Karen Mulhauser, they noticed that getting together six months before elections was not enough. “There is more to the process than collecting names,” says Mulhauser.

According to a document describing the committee, prepared by Mulhauser and UNA-NCA Executive Director Paula Boland, “It was believed that we could achieve increased diversity and increase overall board engagement if we established a governance committee with year-round responsibilities of board self assessment, board development as well as nominations and elections.”

The concrete tasks of this committee include providing orientations to new members of the chapter board, administering a board self-assessment and recruiting and interviewing possible future candidates.

For the new-board-member orientation, each member is assigned a “buddy,” or old board member, who provides a one-on-one introduction. The new members are also given a “board book” – a three-ring binder that includes a list of chapter committees, contact information and vital information on the UN.

The self-assessment is completed anonymously and annually by each board member and provides an honest view of the group’s work. Recently the chapter started to use an online assessment form.  Mulhauser regarded this as a “nifty tool,” saying that the feedback from it  led the chapter to increase orientation activities for new members.

The document also went on to say that the assessment “was led by someone who wasn’t a current serving board member and could lend an independent lens to the work. The assessment was developed over the summer and distributed to the board by early autumn.”  When the assessment results were in, the chapter had achieved, according to the document:

  1. A current snapshot of the board’s composition
  2. A better idea of the organization’s strengths and weaknesses
  3. A better sense of our board’s effectiveness and engagement level”

While you can’t guarantee that a group of volunteers will follow through on their commitments or stay focused on an agenda, institutionalizing a monitoring mechanism increases the chances that a chapter’s board will be the type of group that Margaret Mead referred to – thoughtful and committed. 

When asked if other chapters should adopt similar committees, Mulhauser gave a resounding yes and added that the chapters’ governance body is the “most important committee of the organization because it is responsible for identifying recruiting and orienting the organization’s leadership.”

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