Governance as Leadership: Reframing the Work of Nonprofit Boards by Richard P. Chait
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Every once in a while a book comes along that changes everything. This is one of those books... and that's why it gets the five stars from me. It took three pages, rather than just two, for me to adquately summarize this one, but you can download that summary for free by clicking here.
These authors were recruited by BoardSource, one of the most trusted names in nonprofit organizing, to study models of effective board structures and help all of us ease in to the 21st century with some new strategies for increasing the engagement and impact of nonprofit boards of directors.
The term "governance" (which, thankfully, is increasingly in use these days) refers to the set of responsibilities and obligations that belong uniquely to the board of directors. This distinguishes it from "management" or "daily operations" which belong to staff. Many models of board governance have been put forward over the years, including one or two so reviled in the field today they are no longer mentioned by name. They tended to focus on drawing those clear distinctions, training board members to keep their hands off staff stuff, and setting up chains of command.
While the Governance as Leadership model does recognize the different responsibilities of board and staff, it makes room for the overlapping gray space where board and staff both benefit from having access to each other's way of thinking. Governance as Leadership creates a framework for understanding the purpose of the board, which leads to greater engagement of board members and increased effectiveness of their organizations. When board and staff work together to co-create the future, they make it more likely they will achieve it together. Brilliant.
The three pillars of Governance as Leadership are described as "modes", three co-equal purposes of a nonprofit board. Most of us are pretty familiar with the fiduciary mode. That's what the laws all address and what we all give and get training on regularly. Set a budget, monitor the programs, make sure the CEO is doing his or her job. Check, check, check. The second mode is also familiar, though less regularly done by boards: strategic. This is the act of choosing priorities and thinking through the best ways of getting where we want to go from where we are. How do we invest our time, money, and other resources? What opportunities may be coming along that can help us further our mission? Some boards play act at this and others do it well, usually depending on the CEO, but most board members find this level of discussion more engaging than merely reviewing a balance sheet or an executive performance evaluation.
It's the third mode that has the most potential to revolutionize the nonprofit field, and has certainly brought change to my consulting practice. It has an unfamiliar name - "generative" - and will require some explanation, but volunteer board members are going to love this. Governing in generative mode is co-creating the organization: deciding what its purpose is, what its values are, and where it's going. This is the stuff that makes the biggest difference to success. CEOs who share this work with their boards will find that the trustees are more involved, more enthusiastic, and more likely to remain with the organization (um, and raise funds for it.) Board members recruited for their talent and experience will be glad for the opportunity to contribute their talent and experience. Smart CEO's will be glad for that, too.
From now on, I will start every new contract for board development and strategic planning work with a presentation on Governance as Leadership. I'll add this model to my consulting firm's values and information about "how I work." I will counsel the executive directors who call and ask for my help to clarify roles and responsibilities that this is not so black and white anymore. Sure, we can help prevent board members from "micromanaging" daily operations, but not by giving them a position description that says "thou shalt not." We'll do it by engaging them in the creative work in the generative mode of governance, enthusiastically involving them in strategic thinking - not just once a year - and by setting up the simple processes of executing fiduciary responsibility.
What am I waiting for? There's work to do!
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