Fred Laughlin, Governance, Governance Insights & Resources, Latest News, Private Clubs, SI Insights, Strategic Planning, Strategy
As the election season heats up, it’s easy for people involved in club leadership to draw parallels—for better and worse—which begs many at clubs to ask, “Should we use a contested or uncontested method for electing board members?”
Choosing an Election Process
If given complete authority to design a process for electing the board members at your club, would you choose an uncontested election where the number of candidates equals the number of slots to be filled, or a contested election where the number of candidates exceeds the available slots?
The clear preference of the “experts” is the uncontested election. At many clubs, it’s tough enough to find good candidates without having to convince them to stand for a contested election.
Apart from the experts’ fondness for uncontested elections, the majority of club bylaws still prescribe contested elections. Why? Fundamentally, it’s the American way. It’s democratic. And, in some jurisdictions, it is statutory to a certain extent. Club members feel that closed elections take power from the people and place it in the hands of the board or a Nominating Committee, neither of which can be completely trusted.
Ah, trust. There’s the rub. Members may concede that uncontested elections are better at attracting quality candidates, but they worry that uncontested elections place too much authority in the hands of a few, where politics is valued over substance.
The challenge is not how to argue the superiority of uncontested elections, but rather convincing members that the process is objective and fair—and that candidates are selected on the merits of the job. Meeting this challenge means gaining the members’ trust.
Selection on Merits
An uncontested election is only successful when the members perceive the nominating process as objective and independent. Members must trust that the candidates are selected on merits, rather than popularity or seniority. But what are “the merits,” or what criteria should be used to select board candidates?
There are two key elements to selecting on merits: an independent, objective Nominating Committee and a clearly articulated board profile.
The Nominating Committee
The members’ trust in the nominating process depends on how they perceive the independence and objectivity of those doing the selecting, namely the Nominating Committee. Nominating Committee members may be appointed by the current president, the immediate past president, or the board.
Having the right people on the Nominating Committee is a key ingredient to selecting quality candidates. But having a quality committee is helpful only when the members know the basis for selecting quality candidates. Accordingly, the Nominating Committee needs to know the criteria for selection. Although the club’s bylaws may mention a criterion or two, rarely will the bylaws contain more than the basic requirements. It is up to the board to determine the criteria for selection. Using a board profile is the best approach.
A board profile is a document that describes the board from both an individual and a group point of view. The profile typically comprises three sections:
Criteria required by every board candidate
Traits that are desirable for the board to reflect multiple perspectives
Individual experience and competencies that can help the board to address club business
The board profile should identify members of known integrity who have demonstrated capability of working as a team member—especially candidates with a history of committee service to the club.
Even if you follow the guidance above, there is no guarantee that your members will support an uncontested election—but your chances will markedly improve. An uncontested election
will help identify quality candidates willing to serve on the board, in a less politically charged election process, and a more professional and effective board.