Sunday, April 12, 2015

Book Review: Boards that Make a Difference

Boards That Make a Difference: A New Design for Leadership in Nonprofit and Public OrganizationsBoards That Make a Difference: A New Design for Leadership in Nonprofit and Public Organizations by John Carver

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

John Carver's work is a conundrum.  In one way, his (no longer new) Policy Governance theory makes a great deal of sense.  Boards of directors of nonprofit and governmental organizations should focus on the big picture, on defining results, and leave operations (how to) to their staff.  With this clear focus, boards no longer have to struggle with the question of where rubberstamping ends and micromanaging begins. They are working on their responsibilities and staffs are working on theirs, separate but complementary roles to achieve shared goals.  This Policy Governance model is packed with all kinds of mechanisms for making boards more productive and engaged than most commonly-accepted practices allow for.  Truly, I would like to live in a world where boards of directors behaved as Carver describes.

The problem is that they don't... and they won't.  Few who looked at it ever accepted Carver's insistence that the Policy Governance model be implemented in toto.  Unless and until an organization is in a free-fall, there is no motivation to adopt such a wholesale change in how they do business.  At best, they will accept some suggested incremental improvements (especially, and ironically, if they come from a highly trusted CEO.) Some may say they have adopted Policy Governance, even go through the training and write some policies... but in the few cases I am familiar with, the boards have soon reverted to adopting outcome statements and plans that are put in front of them by staff, go back to organizing their meetings around agendas developed by the CEO.  They may be effectively staying out of operations, but they wouldn't adopt a goal the CEO didn't want if their life depended on it.

In one case I saw in the news, a local school board was directed by an outside investigator to drop Policy Governance.   Good governance and "outside investigators" don't go together.

So Carver's model fails for lack of practical application.  Which is too bad.  Had he devoted his considerable talent and high-quality thinking to providing his readers with a series of ideas for how and when to use some of his techniques, he might have been a real help to consultants like me who help nonprofits build capacity.  Those of us on the ground working with modern nonprofits are successful at introducing new governance practices one at a time.

So its onward with Governance as Leadership for me.  That's a solid model groups can aspire to... and move toward as they can.  (Check the December 7, 2014 blog for my review and summary.)

Carver's Boards That Make a Difference is so dense that it took me three pages to do my two-page summary.  Anyone with an interest in looking at it can download it for free by clicking here.

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