Five-Member Board not the panacea promised by Coerver & Byers

Benefits of a Five-Member Board” in the March issue ofAssociations Now (AN) should be read with a high degree of skepticism. I’ve reread the article several times over the past week and I don’t know who deserves more criticism: the authors for promoting a “one-trick pony” as a panacea for the industry-wide malaise that seems to have hit EVERY association (one of their many unsubstantiated claims); or AN’s editorial staff for choosing such a weak treatment of an otherwise important topic for this month’s feature article.

To be fair, this article has some merit, but on balance it contains more erroneous messages than useful knowledge.

My concern is for those relatively new to the profession of association management. I am confident that anyone with some years of association management and governance experience, especially with multiple organizations, would see the same shortcomings I saw in this article.

Here are a few assertions made by the authors I can agree with:

  1. Effective board governance is critical to an organization’s relevance and success. An effective board focusing first on governance (not management) is a necessary condition to an organization’s success. It’s not sufficient, but it is a necessary foundation for success. Management is also critical, but effective management will not sustain a weak board – not for long anyway.
  2. The seven questions they include in a sidebar are excellent. If a board candidate doesn’t possess them all, or isn’t strong in each, an important question becomes: “What does the board, along with management, do to cultivate and develop each of these skills in their board?” (The authors would not seem to support this position, given their advice is to only put seasoned directors on the board to begin with.)
  3. “Most associations select their board members with a very flawed assumption that anybody can govern. Governing, however, is very difficult. Not just anybody can do it.” While I’d like to see the actual evidence supporting this statement, many experienced association executives would probably accept this general assertion.

Points of Disagreement

I have no issue with a five-member board. Many of the advantages of a five-member board the authors cite are obvious and uncontestable. However…

  1. The article is dripping with gross generalizations. Where’s the evidence supporting any of these basic assertions made by the authors about the general state of associations or the effectiveness of boards? Not even alluded to in the article!
  2. One size fits all. A reasonable estimate of the number of membership-based associations in this country is 120,0001, spanning not just every profession and industry segment, but many professional subspecialties and industry sub-segments. Do the authors really believe that all of these associations would be served best by a five-member board? Unfortunately, I think they would based on the certainty of their words.
  3. What are the risks of a five-member board? They don’t even acknowledge that there are any; they only enumerate the potential obstacles to reaching nirvana and how to remove them.

The authors raise some valuable and useful points about board operations and governance, but fail miserably making the case that a five-member board is the panacea they claim it is. They also ignore how to align their board governance model with an organization’s mission. In the end, all that matters is achieving the association’s mission and the logical extension of this article is that board efficiency is a goal unto itself.

Beware of both the simplicity and the conviction of this article… if the Chinese proverb to follow is any guidance, the authors of this AN article bring us no wisdom.

“Deep doubts, deep wisdom; small doubts, little wisdom.”
Chinese Proverb


1 90,000 business leagues reported by the IRS and if ASAE’s operating ratio studies over the past 20+ years are to believed, 501(c)(3) organizations comprise about a third of the population of associations – so add 30,000 to the business league number.

Posted in Governance vs. Management.

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