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Effective, Responsible Governance Begins with Clarity

by OSAE Lifetime Member Kevin McCray, ret. National Ground Water Association

For a board or a committee of any organization to govern or act responsibly and effectively, clarity as to the purpose of a discussion and its related proposed action are essential.

A simple tool that could be adopted for use by many organizations is what I call, for short, the SBAR. I[1] developed this from assimilating the messages provided in many workshops and programs aimed at increasing organizational effectiveness.[2]

SBAR is an acronym for the key elements found within the form – Situation, Background, Assessment (and alternatives), and Recommendation.

For agenda building, it is helpful to start each SBAR with some fundamental tracking information, such as a numbering system that links the SBAR to its proper place in the agenda. I found it useful to make the digits to the right of a decimal point relate to the first date on which the SBAR was presented to the board, in case the board defers action on the proposal to a later meeting. There is another space on the form for the date the SBAR was drafted. 

I also tried to include the organization’s logo was on every SBAR. A trivial matter, perhaps, but to me it reinforced that this was an important document about an important topic. Also, each SBAR was watermarked as “DRAFT” because the recommendation could always be modified.

Identification of the person who can be most responsive to the content of the SBAR is identified, as is that person’s linkage to the submitting group.

Agendas can be made more useful to an organization if they identify the topic of the SBAR is considered (a) strategic, (b) administrative, or (c) policy.

In this form, Situation summarizes in no more than two sentences, and preferably one, what is the issue or circumstance that brings this topic forward to the board. 

Associated with Situation is the answer to the question, “Why is this before the Board?” In some associations, certain actions require board authority and action, such as modifying a policy – not a practice – of the organization. It may be spelled out as a board requirement in a group’s code of regulations or bylaws, or in a previously adopted board policy.

In the Background section, staff, in collaboration with the appropriate volunteer committee or task group, summarizes the issue in a more detailed form than found in the Situation statement. Typically, with straightforward issues, such as a proposed amendment to a policy, the background may only be two or three brief paragraphs. For more complex issues, more information should be provided, so long as it directly speaks to the situation.

Assessment provides an opportunity to explain what the proposed action may mean to the organization. It could be used to explain a solution to a governance issue, the impact of a proposed dues increase, or the start of a new initiative. Within as assessment is a chance to explain potential alternatives to the recommended action (see Recommendation), including the pros and the cons, as seen by those submitting the SBAR. Also within the Assessment section is always listed four choices always before a body with authority to make binding decisions about an issue: 

  • The Board (or committee) has the option to not act at all.
  • The Board (or committee) has the option to reject these suggestions.
  • The Board (or committee) has the option to modify these suggestions.
  • The Board (or committee) could adopt these suggestions as presented, as well as additional suggestions.

For a board of final authority within an association, I believe it is important for the group to also ask itself, “Does this decision support the whole of XYZ Association?” A board may judge the decision does not have to meet that test, but it is certainly responsible to consider the intent of the question.

Sub-questions within the Assessment section I found useful to add after several iterations of the original SBAR were:

  1. Does XYZ Association have the capacity for this initiative? Capacity is the specific ability of XYZ, over an extended period, measured in quantity and level of quality.
  2. How does this initiative relate to the XYZ Association’s effectiveness in

(1) leadership, (2) adaptability, (3) management, and (4) technical capacities?

  1. Is it foreign to our organizational culture?
  2. Does this initiative lead to superior performance through: (1) a premium price or (2) lower costs?

An additional question could include an answer to the expected return on investment, if relevant to the topic. How the group will measure and recognize success from the proposed action could also be asked.

Of course, not all of these questions will pertain to every issue, but making them a permanent part of the SBAR form keeps these questions front and center. While not included in the easy to remember and say acronym – SBAR – an explanation of how the proposed action relates to the group’s current goals, strategies, and objectives should prove useful, as well.

Finally, Recommendation is just that – what the group bringing to the governing board (or perhaps a committee) for its action recommends as a course forward. It is a draft resolution for the group holding authority to take action and it should be written as such, stating that it is the recommendation of the proposing body (it could be staff), for the group of authority (typically the board), to do what is believed needed to be done. Of course, any resolution, before it is moved and seconded, can be amended, and of course, further amendments can be made before a vote, so long as an appropriate rule of order is followed, such as the Modern Rules of Order (some may still rely upon the cumbersome Robert’s Rules).

As association executives know, sometimes our volunteer groups suffer from a lack of total eligible volunteer participation. It is appropriate for a board to know the breadth and depth of a proposed action before it. Thus, submitting a record of how many of the volunteer group submitting the SBAR took part in the recommendation, and how many were in favor and how many opposed, is valuable background for a board to act in a responsible manner.

Some will see the SBAR, or your own modified version of it, as bureaucratic and tedious. But, remember, a board has real responsibilities, which relate to accountabilities to the board itself, the members of the organization, and to the taxpayers that give an organization its tax-exempt status in exchange for actions in the interest of public good. A few minutes of time from staff and appropriate volunteers can give comfort that a responsible process was followed when a board acts.

[1] McCray was CEO of the Westerville, Ohio-based National Ground Water Association for 22 years prior to his December 2017 retirement.  He is a Lifetime member of the Ohio Society of Association Executives.

[2]In particular, programs and materials from Bob Harris, CAE, chairman at, classes by Nancy Axelrod and Paul Greeley for BoardSource, and ASAE’s book The Will to Govern Well: Knowledge, Trust, and Nimbleness by authors Glenn Tecker, Jean S. Frankel, and Paul D. Meyer.

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