Veiled results from AVMA membership survey rile veterinarians

Delegates asked to sign confidentiality in exchange for access

July 26, 2013 (published)
By Jennifer Fiala

Dissatisfaction laid out in a 2011 membership survey is one of the reasons the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) needs to revamp the way it governs and makes policy for its 84,216 members.

That notion comes from a growing number of AVMA higher-ups, many of whom want the 150-year-old group to shed its largest governing body, the House of Delegates, and adopt a leaner structure that includes opening officer elections to the organization’s at-large membership.

Making the case for change, former AVMA treasurer Dr. Bret Marsh spoke to delegates last week during their annual meeting in Chicago. He was one of several who referenced the results of a Member Needs Survey the AVMA conducted in 2011.

Nearly 3,000 veterinarians responded to the survey.

“Twenty-three percent of our members felt they had a voice within AVMA,” Marsh said. “That suggests to me that 77 percent said they did not. That’s compelling.”

Marsh is a member of the Governance Engagement Team (GET), a seven-person group charged with communicating ideas and soliciting feedback for revamping AVMA’s system for governance. In the same speech, he mentioned that 5,712 veterinarians did not renew their AVMA memberships this past year. “One of the primary reasons given: ‘It has no value to me,’ ” he said.

Dr. René Carlson, former AVMA president, lamented before the House that just one in four AVMA members believe they have a voice. “We’ve been seeing this crisis develop,” she stated.

AVMA officials have been scrutinizing the way the group governs since 2009, largely in response to criticisms that a handful of association officials make important decisions without consulting the general membership. That led to the creation of the AVMA Task Force on Governance and Member Participation in 2012, a group that has since been replaced by the GET’s formation.

Right now, a 15-member Executive Board operates as the AVMA's administrative and policymaking body alongside the House, a second policy-making body comprised of 68 state, territorial and allied veterinary medical groups. The House meets twice yearly compared with the Executive Board’s six annual gatherings.

Although some AVMA leaders are focused on changing the governance structure as a way to address membership discontent, many delegates question whether that's truly the source of veterinarians' disinterest in the organization.

Dr. Shawn Sette, alternate delegate for West Virginia, acknowledged that some AVMA members aren’t satisfied with the organization. “But new governance? I’m not sure they asked us to throw out the old model for a whole new model,” he said.

Sette added: “Would we be comfortable throwing out the House of Representatives in favor of a smaller group? I don’t think we would be. It concerns me when smaller groups get more and more power.”

Delegates have turned a skeptical eye toward a decision by AVMA executives to keep results of its Member Needs Survey under wraps, even as feedback from the survey is being used to propel a governance overhaul that could lead to the House’s disbandment.

When asked what’s driving secrecy surrounding responses from the survey, AVMA officials explained that most organizations consider the data they collect from members to be "extremely valuable and highly confidential."

"The AVMA is no exception," communications official Sharon Granskog said by email. "The AVMA conducts a member needs survey every five years so that we can gauge the member's expectations of the association, determine overall satisfaction with the association and improve programs, products and services. It's an extremely long questionnaire with huge amounts of data which is used to drive strategic decisions."

Granskog pointed out that a synopsis of the survey's results appeared in a 2012 issue of the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association.

But delegates don't want cherry-picked data, said Dr. Stewart “Chip” Beckett, a GET member from Connecticut who supports eliminating the House if it means ushering in a leaner, more responsive AVMA. Beckett wants delegates to have full and open access to the survey data — just like he did.

“We all got it and read it, and it was the basis for a lot of our discussions,” he said.

Drawing from experience as an elected official in Glastonbury, Conn., where he resides and practices, Beckett said, “There’s nothing in local government that’s secret."

“Transparency is always a good idea for a membership organization in 2013," he said. “Admit the fact that you have warts, and there are things we need to work on," he said. "It’s messier, it’s harder initially … but it gives us a better idea of what people are thinking and gives us better solutions."

Bowing to pressure from the House, AVMA executives eventually concluded during the meeting that delegates could view the membership survey’s findings if they sign a confidentiality agreement. However, that did little to quell delegates' dismay or subdue heated debate about whether terminating the House is necessary to the ensure the organization's future health.

Proponents for change insist that the cumbersome, slow-moving AVMA isn’t attractive to veterinarians of the Millennial Generation. But whether the House is to blame is in question. And only delegates can vote on the House's disbandment.

The issue has raised emotions for months. During the House’s meeting in January, delegates angrily rallied against the push for change.

Last week’s House meeting was nearly as contentious.

“You’ve talked about the need to attract millennials," Florida's alternate delegate Dr. Stephen Shores said, directing his comment to Dr. Karen Bradley, a GET member and Vermont delegate. "What are the other problems that are so horrible that we have to completely change our governance?”

In response, Bradley referenced several books on association governance that show such change is necessary to remain relevant. What’s more, the AVMA Member Needs Survey shows a disconnect, she said.

Dr. Kim Nicholas, a delegate from Washington, praised the job the GET and its predecessor, the Task Force on Governance and Member Participation, have done to analyze the association’s governance and recommend changes.

“However, if we got rid of the House, I would personally feel like a lot of what we’ve done here is irrelevant,” he stated. “I’d hate to see the House go, but if it’s for the benefit of the association, I can live with it.”

Some delegates reiterated that perhaps it’s not the House, but AVMA executives and top staff that leave the group’s general membership feeling disenfranchised and apprehensive.

Alabama delegate Dr. William DeWitt stood before the House to express dismay about infighting among AVMA politicians and the secrecy surrounding AVMA's survey that purportedly supports change.

“It’s pretty clear that this House isn’t going to vote itself out of a job,” he said. “And I don’t know what’s more damaging than an Executive Board that’s not giving us information.”

AVMA President Dr. Douglas Aspros called on the audience — and membership at large — to band together and quiet the dissent.

“I say to our more relentless critics — and you know who you are — be fair, be constructive and be realistic,” he said in a speech. “… Change isn’t good. It’s necessary.”

VIN News Service commentaries are opinion pieces presenting insights, personal experiences and/or perspectives on topical issues by members of the veterinary community. To submit a commentary for consideration, email

Information and opinions expressed in letters to the editor are those of the author and are independent of the VIN News Service. Letters may be edited for style. We do not verify their content for accuracy.