Can Associations Have Energetic Elections Too?

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“On 15 March 2007, Scalzi announced himself as a write-in candidate for president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, citing disagreement with the only ballot-listed candidate’s vision for the future of the organization. He was not elected.”

Those two sentences on Wikipedia mask a great story of an association election that played out on a one member’s blog starting with a long posting “SFWA President: I’m a Write-In Candidate.” John Scalzi spurred a great debate about uncontested elections, nomination process, and very critically member value and engagement. He began …

“I got a ballot from the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America about a week ago … As I read the ballot, I noticed two things. First, there was only one candidate on the ballot for each category, and no way to register a “none of the above” vote; two, the SFWA members standing for president and vice president are people who, for philosophical reasons only (having nothing to do with their respective personal characters)…”

Among the many comments was this one: “I may have already tossed my ballot — having determined that there were no contested races, I saw no particular reason to waste a stamp.”

With the expected unprecedented turnout in our national elections today all of which followed the equally unprecedented volunteerism surrounding the campaigns, I ask myself how can we create a similar energy and commitment in our associations. How can we find four individuals who want so much to be in the leadership role? How can we energize members to engage in the discussion about the issues of the day for the association and profession (or trade)? How can we fuel a dialog about who should be running the association?

Scalzi opened the door for the SFWA to begin the dialog – where it went I’m not sure. But imagine if they had announced an initiative to explore the election process or efforts to engage members who appear disengaged?

I am not suggesting in this posting that we must have contested elections (read the Association Management November 2004 CEO to CEO: Pros and Cons of Contested Elections for an interesting debate). Rather I am asking how we change the process so that we get the best leaders and that we get an energetic dialog about the issues and about the processes. Mark Ginsberg, PhD executive director of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, wrote in the Spring 2007 Journal of Association Leadership that “many associations conduct their board nominations and elections process the way it always has been done rather than in a way that makes the most sense for the association. When Jim Collins talks about “getting the right people on the bus” as an important function of organizational leadership, his principle also must relate to the selection of members of the organization’s governance.”

He draws from a report by the Kaleel Jamison Group which posited that the highest performing organizations are those organizations that are most inclusive … that providing a seat at the leadership table and welcoming a diverse community to the association is essential for organizational success.” Maybe we need – at least at the local level where I see the greatest challenges in “electing” the right people – is to focus not on the top but on the grassroots. Take a page from the Obama campaign – and many successful Get Out The Vote campaigns – and begin with exciting the voters. Ask them what’s important and then draw them into the dialog and the process.

Well, I’m headed out to vote in the national election and to take notes on how to energize our chapter members. What about you?

Mariner Management & Marketing provides association management, volunteer coordinator and leadership development information for associations and non-profit organizations.