difficulty-opportunityLong held governance structure and traditions can be the biggest impediment to effecting change in an association. The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) was formed in 1955 when several existing social work organizations came together to form one association. None of those groups wanted to give up their power to influence the field so a Delegate Assembly was created. The size of the Delegate Assembly varied over the years from 200 to 300 delegates who were elected state by state (based on size of membership). The delegates determined changes to the social work Code of Ethics and association-endorsed social and public policies. The assembly also made decisions about the operations and business of the association, a task handled by the board of directors in most other associations.

The national Board of Directors, who had fiduciary and governance functions, and the Chapter Directors, who ran the day-to-day operations, had no input into the bylaws or policies of the association and weren’t even invited to the assembly meeting. According to NASW Executive Director, Dr. Elizabeth Clark, “This created numerous difficulties for the association particularly since the bylaws were so specific and included what are generally considered business decisions, such as setting of dues, membership categories and descriptions of committee function.” Although numerous attempts were made to change this governance structure, it stood for almost fifty years.

About a decade ago, the composition of the Delegate Assembly started to change partly because of the costs involved (the association paid all costs totaling close to a million dollars every year the meeting was convened) and because Chapters began having difficulty recruiting delegates to serve the three-year term. Further, in the late 90s the Delegate Assembly made several detrimental business decisions that had a negative impact on the entire association. As a result, delegates were persuaded to add the national board of directors to the assembly because they were the fiduciaries. State executive directors also became non-voting members.

The next radical change came in 2008 when NASW switched to a virtual Delegate Assembly. This change happened very quickly over a six-week period when finances necessitated the cancellation of the face-to-face assembly. “The virtual environment has worked quite well,” says Dr. Clark, “While many people liked coming to Washington, DC and networking, the actual work of the Assembly itself lent itself well to virtual interaction.”

One remaining challenge for NASW is for social policies to be updated on an annual basis, as the current three-year review process does not keep pace with change. The Board of Directors has impaneled a task force to suggest a process for review and revision of policies on an annual basis, and they are also exploring the option of turning policy statements into an e-book revised annually.

While changes in association governance are most important to making meaningful progress, they are also the most difficult. The radical governance changes NASW made to its Delegate Assembly took over fifty years to bring about, although the change to a virtual assembly happened in just six weeks. Dr. Clark offers this advice to other association executives charged with making a radical change to association governance: “I believe good business principles and good governance go hand-in-hand. Sometimes members, even board members, only understand or embrace one or the other. It’s important to present accurate and complete data so educated and thoughtful decisions can be made.”