Association Governance: Why Transparency Matters

My purpose in writing this is to call for greater transparency in the governance of Information Governance related associations to which many of us belong.  As a former Board Member of AIIM and a former President of ARMA International, I have some experience in dealing with questions of transparency and am not encouraged by what I have seen in recent years.

The first question might be what I mean by transparency.  I suspect that many have differing points of view.  My thought is that it follows along these lines:

Business Transparency Defined. … One business dictionary defines transparency as a “lack of hidden agendas or conditions, accompanied by the availability of full information required for collaboration, cooperation, and collective decision making.”

However, I might limit that a bit more than the very broad definition above.  Certainly, it is fully appropriate for an Association to keep confidential its intellectual capital regarding its products and services and those that it is developing.  Second, it is also appropriate for any Association to exempt business negotiations undertaken with external entities, especially in the case of potential mergers, acquisitions, etc.

However, items relating to broad strategic goals should be more transparent than I’ve seen in recent years.  Merger considerations can be an open discussion item with members.  Whether an Association should pursue other business ventures such as entering a software business or providing services beyond those required to service its membership should be open for discussion.

Why?  Association staff and Association Boards are comprised of well-intended people surely. However, most do not have a full 360-degree view of what their potential strategies might be.  There are often many issues that could better inform the decision-makers of the wisdom of pursuing a specific strategy BEFORE they make significant investments of the money invested by members.   In one example I’ve seen, the price of failure proved to be material and significant to that Association’s financial status and eventually cost that Association the ability to pursue other worthy opportunities.

Now, consider the financial status and transparency in that arena.   I belong to two associations that report at least yearly on their financial status.  Members of those Associations have an opportunity to be better informed about how their leadership is performing based on financial measures.  I belong to another that has yet to disclose its financial status promptly.   That Association is not financially transparent and is not allowing its members to make informed judgments about its performance.  I would suggest that would be a failure of the Association to meet its fiduciary responsibility to be a good steward of members’ money.

Finally, for those Associations that prevent elected Board Members from speaking about issues and Board discussions by imposing over-reaching “Non-disclosure agreements,” we often see that Board members are unable to gauge the desires and expectations of members because communications are essentially cut off.  I’ve seen one Association even take a step to create “Ambassadors” who are not elected and who are informed ONLY by Association staff about the happenings of that Association.  One might wonder why elected Board members are not the Association’s ambassadors.

What happens without transparency?  Typically, in such organizations, rumors about, incorrect information is not corrected, and members become disenfranchised.  What happens when there is greater transparency?  Members are involved and can buy into Association initiatives.  Rumors can be quickly dispelled, and Board members are freed to openly communicate about shared objectives.

My recommendation would be that those associations that are currently closed in their communications with members open those lines of communication.  They can benefit and give their members solid reasons to remain.  I fear that those who fail to be transparent will ultimately fail and disappear from the scene.

Douglas P. Allen, CRM, CDIA+ is a 41-year member and Past President of ARMA International.  He has also served on the AIIM International Board and has been a long-term member of two other Associations.  Doug recently served as Strategic Account Manager and former Sales Manager with Tyler Technologies.

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