Why Cultivating an Effective Swim Club Board Matters

Written by on November 23, 2022

An area of concern with a large portion of parent-run clubs is that the board is either ineffective or they don’t have enough quality members that can deliver. And before you go assuming that my assertion is coming from head coach complaints, let me tell you that it’s usually the board who calls me for help. They recognize that they aren’t performing or performing to the best of their ability. Good on them for recognizing they need help or that things need to change. I tend to approach this situation from the perspective of asking them to lead their business like the business they are. Yes, you are a swim club but it is a business and if you were on the board of any other business outside of youth sports, would non-performance be allowed to stand? Sure, it’s common sense that swim clubs are businesses, but for some reason when parents volunteer to be on the board they don’t quite make the connection that they are Business Leaders, not just a parent volunteering.

That is a mental step that I ask Boards to take with me in order to move into their skills and effectiveness. Having an effective board requires serious reflection and courage. It means the current board must put in the effort and lay the groundwork for future boards to come. The word effective is going to mean different things for teams, but essentially it should be a board that either delivers on operational actions (dry side) or facilitates operational actions that benefit the organization and its members.

It starts with deciding the purpose and structure of the board. It should be outlined in your bylaws, but chances are the board itself and the positions within have changed or evolved, maybe even devolved, since those bylaws were written. Take an honest look at how the board should be operating to be effective today, not 10-15 years ago when the bylaws were written. For many boards, that means tackling the operational needs of the organization. Managing volunteers, running meets, hosting events, raising money, use of money, the list can go on forever and will be specific to your club.

From there, the board should be writing position descriptions that outline specific responsibilities for each and every board member. You would do this for any other role in any other business. Even though these roles are on a volunteer basis, they are leadership roles within the organization. They have an absolute purpose, expectations, and responsibilities and are accountable for the overall success of the club. That’s serious stuff and should be taken seriously. I personally feel when someone decides to run for a board seat, they truly don’t know the expectations other than a few flowery words. Instead of giving them the job descriptions and ensuring they understand that they will need to lead work and dedicate time, they are told that it’s not that big of a deal…just a few hours a month. From the get-go, you haven’t set real expectations and then you wonder why no one does any work.

To my mind, if you are on the board you are leading a piece of work. You may also be the doer, but no matter what, the workload is spread across the board. This is to avoid burnout and to ensure that each board member is grounded and has a stake in the success of the organization. If a board member doesn’t have time to oversee (or complete) specific works for the organization, then they have no business being on the board. The only deviation from this thought process should be for those larger clubs who have a full complement of staff and are in a more supervisory position. But let’s be honest, that’s not the norm.

In addition to laying out the specifics of the role, there should also be a very real line in the sand when it comes to becoming a board member. The main responsibility of the board is to ensure the club’s ability to grow and thrive. That means each board member must be able to think past their own children. They must be able to behave, both through work and decision-making, in the best interest of the entire club. This point is often assumed, but it never quite hits the target of reality. I believe clubs do themselves a disservice by not making this a benchmark that is spoken about and recruited against. You can’t assume, you have to make this a very real point of difference when recruiting your new board members, setting the stage for clarity and leaving no room for misinterpretation.

Lastly, here is the biggest thing you can do to cultivate an effective board. Recruit for what you need, not what you can get. This is one that can be difficult for people to get their heads around because I often get told that no one wants to volunteer. That’s a problem don’t you think? It’s not that no one wants to volunteer, there are so many statistics out there that disprove that statement. What they really don’t want is to be taken advantage of or to waste their time or be in a position where they make no impact. THAT’S why people don’t volunteer.

Be the change. You have already written out what is expected via roles and responsibilities. You are going to ensure that every board member leads pieces of work so the workload is spread out as evenly as possible. You are drawing the line in the sand in that every board member will behave as a leader of the organization and can think broadly and critically to make the best decisions for the organization. Now what you need to do is find the people who have the skills you want and need and then prove to them that they won’t be wasting their time or being taken advantage of. Treat this like it was a paid job interview, and do the due diligence to set your board and club up for success. Yes, it might take time but I would rather you spend the time to seek out the right people than have to battle against or work around those who have no intention of leading the organization positively.

If the current board can do this work, then they set up future boards to be successful. This process is necessary to ensure strength and continuity in an industry where there is turnover. It’s no longer good enough to just take whoever wants to put their hand up and hope for the best. You must plan, prepare and recruit accordingly. Cultivate your board so it’s an effective one that serves its members to the fullest.

Originally posted on SwimSwam in August of 2022

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