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Mary Hiland, PhD

About Mary

Nonprofit Governance: Getting Back to Basics

Much is being written these days about nonprofit governance. Our attention is drawn almost daily to the topics of accountability and transparency so prevalent in professional journals, newspapers, and on the internet. Moving from these sources to a broader review of nonprofit governance literature reveals mostly "how-to" books with a thorough focus on defining and elaborating the roles and responsibilities of nonprofit board directors. While attention to clarity of functions and accountabilities is very important, I suggest that a more fundamental conversation about governance is needed.

Challenging traditional governance models

The nonprofit governance literature presents lots of advice and several models which include: high-impact governance, high-performance governance, the strategic model of governance, the tripartite model, the contingency model, the competency model and so on. Most of this work, which is informative and helpful, is based on the practical experience of the authors and has a focus on the numerous functions that board should perform. The models differentiate themselves primarily by which functions they emphasize rather than providing substantive new concepts of how to design or develop effective nonprofit boards.

The job of being a board member is defined pervasively in the literature as: determining mission and strategic direction, overseeing organizational resources and performance, being accountable to the community constituents who "own" the nonprofit, building relationships which span the boundaries of the organization and promote its mission, fundraising and, for some, advocacy. In other words- look out, watch over, reach out and engage. I suspect that the last two functions are much more appealing to volunteers with limited time and a passion for a cause. After all, that is why people should and do join boards. Knowing this, I believe that we are not doing the job we need to do to strategically address the importance of meaning in the way we build boards or understand how they can be effective.

Beginning the conversation about a new model

In 1996, Barbara Taylor, Richard Chait and Thomas Holland wrote about what they named the "new work" of nonprofit boards. At that time, they challenged both boards of directors and executive directors to think differently about how a board can be effective. They called for a new model of governance- a model that identifies and acts upon "what matters." More recently, Chait and Taylor, with William Ryan, provide additional insights about governance. These come from their work on the Governance Futures project, a joint effort of the Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations at Harvard University and BoardSource. In this work, they call for less focus on board performance and more on purpose. They have developed a new perspective on governance (see their book Governance as Leadership). Recently, I had the privilege of hearing Dr. Chait present this perspective. It builds on their prior work and calls for a broader, more encompassing consideration of what it means to govern nonprofits well.

Others too, are challenging the adequacy of our traditional governance models, and calling for a new paradigm. I mention the work of Dr. Chait and his colleagues not to argue that these researchers have "the answer," but to suggest that they have provided groundwork which challenges the sector to think differently about effective governance. Their attention to ideas about what matters and purpose calls on us to consider the dimensions of governance that goes beyond being more business-like or strategic. It calls us to attend to the "soft stuff," if you will, that is harder to clearly define and compile in a job description. We need to deepen our conversations about governance to focus more on purpose and what matters; to focus on meaning.

Effective governance requires a good match between what is meaningful for the individual who serves on the board and what matters for the organization. Reflection is a critical first step to connecting our hearts with this work. Do we know what has meaning for us individually? How do we facilitate the conversations that help reveal what about an organization has meaning for us and for each other? Then, and perhaps more importantly, how do we make the connections among those meanings and our governance responsibilities? How do we structure our governance work to sustain those connections?

A second step is to understand what it means to be in relationship with each other. Writers on nonprofit governance rarely mention the importance to effective board functioning of building community, nurturing relationships, and establishing and sustaining trust. These are critical to board performance and are all related in some way to what is meaningful to us. Research has shown that effective governance requires teamwork. Teamwork is based on how we agree to be together and how we live out that agreement. Trusteeship also involves how we are in relationship with the constituents and communities we serve. Who are the owners? Who are we accountable to and how are we in relationship with them? How are we building into our governance processes time to have conversations about these and related questions? How are we building trust in the board room?

The nonprofit sector is rooted and fed by peoples’ passion for improving the quality of life in our communities. What is the relationship between that passion and effective board service? We need to create processes in our board rooms and conversations sector-wide that address the questions this article poses. We need to promote the idea that dialogue about what matters- what has meaning to us- is strategic. The chair of a nonprofit board recently characterized board service as "professional intimacy." This expresses the paradox that challenges us. We need to dispel the myth that what is personal is not professional - that bringing our entire caring, loving, and spiritual selves into the board room is somehow not business-like. Maybe then we can learn more about how to structure the work of governing nonprofit organizations for effectiveness.


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