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Q&A: How Will Modern Association Governance Position Us for Success?

Aug 10, 2021
A group of safety professionals raising their hands because modern association governance provides volunteer opportunities

Our association governance structure helps us set strategy, deliver value, address risks and make decisions. It’s also in need of revision.

In fact, fewer than 5% of organizations like ours operate under our current form of governance. Within the current system, our Board of Directors is unable to meet its fiduciary responsibilities because of an antiquated division of authority with our House of Delegates. And if that sounds complicated to you, you’re not alone. We knew we needed to address this complex issue with members and volunteer leaders eager to delve into systemic improvements.   

At the beginning of this year, we formed a Governance Task Force comprised of volunteer leaders Lindsay Bell, Wyatt Bradbury, Abby Ferri, Lori Frederic, Matt Herron, Monique Parker, Jose Perez, Rick Pollock, Kathy Seabrook and Royal Willard. With President Brad Giles and President-Elect Christine Sullivan as co-chairs, this task force guided the development of a recommended strategy and action plan for our next generation of governance.

We spoke with three task force members to gain more insight into the process of developing association governance recommendations and why they hope the House of Delegates votes to move our Society into the future this September.

  • Wyatt Bradbury, M.Eng., CSP, CHST, CIT, is an HSE advisor for Hitachi Rails and an adjunct professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
  • Abby Ferri, CSP, is a senior risk control consultant for Gallagher, providing risk management solutions for various industries, including construction.
  • Monique Parker, CSP, is a senior global business manager within the lithium division of the Albemarle Corporation.

ASSP: As you know, we’re here to talk about association governance, which may not be a topic that everyone understands. To set the stage, what is it and why should members want to learn more?

Ferri: Some people don’t know whether they should care about governance, or they aren’t sure what to care about. But governance is the way ASSP runs. It’s how the Society provides services and how they provide the framework that’s there for volunteer leaders. This system governs a lot of stuff that’s behind the scenes that you may not see if you don’t hold a volunteer leadership position, so it’s understandable if it isn’t top of mind. But I think people should understand how the Society functions because I believe in transparency and that it’s important to know how your membership dollars are spent.

Also, when we think about diversity, equity and inclusion — or DEI — and look at structures and frameworks that are in place, we see that governance is one way to advance these efforts and bring more voices to the table.

Bradbury: For me, the big thing with governance is there are legal and fiduciary responsibilities that ASSP has and there are business expectations that ASSP has, and governance is how we set the framework to meet those. A big piece of this is making sure that the roles and responsibilities are correctly defined and correctly aligned.

Parker: That is a perfect lead-in, Wyatt, because I also see our Society as a business. When you have a business, there’s always the background of how you do what you do and why you do it. To me, that’s what governance is about. It's the foundational work of everything else that happens. To Abby's point, if you're not in a volunteer role, governance is something that you would never see or think about because you just want the benefits that the Society gives you.

But to benefit from all the things that the Society provides to its members, governance is critical. It's the building block, the foundation of how we build and get to where we want to be.

ASSP: Starting at the beginning of this year, the three of you – along with several other member leaders – were appointed to a Governance Task Force to guide the development of a strategy and action plan for modernizing the way we do business. Tell us about that experience and process.

Parker: I didn’t know what to expect going into the Governance Task Force. It was something that I was interested in, and I knew there would be very strong thoughts and opinions on different sides. That's the part that was most exciting for me. I love to have dialogue. I love to hear and learn from other points of view. But we came together to find a middle ground that benefits everybody. And that's what I took away from the task force – people were willing to listen to others. That's where I think all of our diversity comes from.

Ferri: I also didn’t know what to expect going in. At first, I was like, Why are you asking me? But once I got there and we started having conversations, I thought, OK this is cool.

And this is also huge. It's a really big opportunity and a big moment for ASSP to do something like this. Even just convening the group together to have those conversations was a really big deal. No matter what came out of it, it felt good to brainstorm and take those next steps as a group. Similar to Monique, I like to hear what people think and have it challenge what I think and challenge me to come up with an educated response. So personally, it was a really good experience, but also Society-wise, having been involved with ASSP since I was a student 18 years ago – it was a cool culmination of what I’d learned as a chapter leader and a leader of WISE (Women in Safety Excellence).

Bradbury: Kind of like Abby, when I started with the task force, I certainly didn't have a strong understanding of ASSP governance. I think one of the keys for me was understanding the limitations, impact and cost of our current process.

One limitation is that it is so one-directional, the way that the information flows. The decisions are made outside, information goes to the House of Delegates, and the House of Delegates accepts or rejects. There isn’t really any discourse, as Monique said earlier. In terms of challenges, the Board doesn't currently have the ability to fulfill their legal and fiduciary responsibilities to the Society. And I think when we look at costs, there's a huge cost associated with the House of Delegates. I don't know that the benefit from that matches the cost in any way.

When we started to dive into it, there were surprising things that we learned — like in some cases up to 30% of the people attending the House of Delegates meeting are proxies. And there's a mismatch in how chapters treat their delegates. Some delegates have a lot of fringe benefits, and some do not. Some delegates actually engage their chapter membership in the process. Some delegates act on their own accord without talking to anybody else. There isn’t consistency.

I think it's really important to make sure folks know that we didn't go into this with some sort of predetermined destination. This was not a rubber stamp process. We went through multiple processes of boiling down, rejecting and combining ideas to get to where we are today. There was a lot of diversity with different businesses and backgrounds represented on this Governance Task Force. I think it was really important that we exemplified the diversity we want to see.

ASSP: What were the recommendations that came out of the work you did on the Governance Task Force and where do things stand now?

Bradbury: We released our findings to the Board of Directors in late spring. They voted on our recommendations, and they were approved at the Board of Directors level. At this point, it has to go through the House of Delegates to be passed.

What we are proposing is that we create an advisory group, and this advisory group is going to be made up of any ASSP members who are interested. They're going to have to raise their hand and say, "Hey, I'd like to be a part of this."

With the current House of Delegates, we have to find individuals who are supposed to be representing specific sectors of ASSP. We now hope to move to a much more open at-large process, where those members are going to be able to certainly represent the interests of their local chapter community but also the interests of other ASSP groups that they're a part of. The advisory group is going to be much larger than the current size of the House of Delegates, and it's something that's going to be able to be molded and morphed, depending on the issues at hand. This approach is going to allow us to have two-direction feedback and communication between the Board and House of Delegates.

The key to this is that there's going to be kind of a conduit, and that conduit's going to be the Oversight Committee. The Oversight Committee is going to be a Board-level committee. It's going to be a standing committee. It's going to be like any other committee that ASSP has at that level, appointed through the blind selection process that we've now tested thanks to the DEI Task Force.

That Oversight Committee is going to be made of seven to nine folks. You're going to be able to raise your hand for that committee just like you do any other using ASSP’s Leadership Connection. They are going to be the facilitators, the leaders and the oversight of that advisory group. The Oversight Committee is going to be agile, and it's going to be frequently used throughout the year.

Ferri: You said agile! I was going to say that no one has used that word yet. I think that was the word of the Governance Task Force. We need to make sure that we can be agile in how we are able to raise concerns and be in a group together.

I feel like this is a really interesting and exciting way to activate people who haven't been able to step up and whose contributions are missing. We’ve been missing contributions. There have also been barriers to people to getting involved with things – with initiatives, with ASSP. That’s why providing micro-opportunities for engagement is so important.

Whenever we’re trying to involve an early-career person, one of their first questions is, "What's the time commitment?" because they may not have the support from their organization.

Parker: I want to reinforce that I think the biggest thing about the recommendations that have come about – and what I would highlight for the House of Delegates – is that this is an opportunity to diversify the voice of our Society. I think that's the biggest piece.

ASSP: Why is modern governance key to the success of our Society?

Ferri: Our Society can use a 100-year lens because we’ve been around for more than that long. We can really think in terms of, "Well, we've been around 100 years. What about the next 100 years?"

And modern association governance will mean we hear from a more diverse sampling of Society professionals. We will also be able to move much more quickly to make the changes we need to be relevant long term.

Parker: When I think about modern governance, I think of one word: attract. Modern governance is key to attracting a younger generation of safety professionals – those who are new into the profession, and those who don't yet understand how the Society can impact them.

Our current governance is very top-down and hierarchical, and I think that is unattractive to newcomers. With modern governance, people coming in will really feel like they can be heard and seen.

Bradbury: I see it as about competition. Modern governance will make us more competitive. I think what we're finding is increasingly, there are a lot of demands on people’s time. There are a lot of demands on people’s resources. There's a lot of competition coming into the safety and health space. It's really important that we set ASSP up for success to be that No. 1 association, No. 1 professional society for safety professionals. And part of that means that we have to be able to be competitive, take advantage of opportunities and adjust on the fly.

ASSP: What will this change mean for individual members?

Parker: I think the biggest change on the individual level is accessibility and having access to volunteerism. One of the things that we talked about is educating our Society about what is available and how they can engage. I recall many years ago when I first joined, I didn’t know much about it except that we went to PDC every year and hung out. That’s what I thought ASSP was. It took many years to really understand and figure out how things work and what real engagement looks like.

I want us to transition to more modern governance so we can engage newer members right away and more easily educate them about their options. There will be more ways to volunteer that take less of people’s time, recognizing that some people are able to commit a lot of time and some aren’t. 

Bradbury: We don't know what's going to happen tomorrow. If there's another pandemic or some disaster, the Society must be able to adapt as a business to better serve members. That's where we're going to start to see that change on an individual level. And I think it's critical because you don't know what you don't know.

Ferri: It could mean nothing to an individual member or it could mean a lot. It could be a way for someone to get connected with people who are like-minded on a topic that they feel hasn't gotten enough attention. Or maybe they aren't like-minded on a topic, and they get a chance to work together and advance something forward. With modern governance, there would be greater opportunities to engage.

I don't want to be pessimistic by saying it could mean nothing. But really, if someone's just comfortable being a member and doing what they usually do, we're not disrupting that with this. This is providing more instead of taking away anything from anyone as a current member.

ASSP: Leading up to the 2021 House of Delegates meeting, how can members get involved and advocate for modern association governance?

Bradbury: There will be regional delegate caucuses and support provided to ROCs (regional operating committees). There's going to be a regional membership meeting. there's going to be one-on-one outreach with the delegates. There will be some other opportunities for community members to engage. And certainly, if any community has further questions, they're able to bring those to the Board of Directors. You can also send questions and comments to

Ferri: You can also access the past Board meeting report and find out more about this initiative that way too, or visit ASSP’s governance page.

ASSP: The vote will held on Sept. 28. Why so soon? Are we allowing enough time for discussion?

Ferri: ASSP has been considering governance changes and gathering member feedback since before the pandemic. This isn't a COVID-prompted situation where everyone is scrambling.

If people are concerned about the timeline, I would encourage them to read our FAQs and see the work that’s been put into this. It hasn’t been rushed. We’re doing our due diligence, which safety people know a lot about.

Bradbury: I think that there has been plenty of time to learn we're evaluating governance, read the recommended changes and prepare for a vote.

I think something else to point out is that part of the timing of this vote is that we want to leverage our current delegates who have been elected for this chapter year as the opening group, the beginning of that advisory group. We want to be able to transition those folks. Putting this vote back any further would make it harder for us to leverage that group and work together during their term.

Parker: I agree with what Abby and Wyatt said. One of the points that I’d like to add is around momentum. Right now, there's a lot of momentum around the work that the task force has done. And everybody can talk about this for another year, but the recommendation is there, and in a year we might end up in the same place. I don't think it's the length of time that we have to speak about it. As Abby mentioned, it's the diligence that people have in discussing it and making time and energy available to have those discussions and to engage with this issue.

The momentum is there. The decision needs to be made. As Wyatt said, we have a group of people that we can engage quickly, get them active, and have them understand and see firsthand what modern governance does for Society and for them as professionals.

Wyatt mentioned it earlier: The Board identified this as a need a long time ago. How we got to where we are is important. For me personally, understanding the why is sometimes more important than understanding the what. It's very important to me to have that why explained explicitly so that any perceived biases can be removed early on and that can be addressed through the process of the why, the how and then the vote.


The Role of Governance

To remain strong in a rapidly changing world, our governance model must provide business agility and create clear decision-making accountability while creating a year-round opportunity for member voice to inform and influence Society decisions.

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