What do nonprofit governing boards do?

Defining governance is not easy. If you google “definition on governance,” you will find over 500,000 entries. Governance is a generic term with applications in information technology, Website management, research, corporations. I’ve found that how the term governance is applied in various disciplines is somewhat confusing. That’s why a simple definition for nonprofit board governance may not be enough to gain clarity and understanding.

For nonprofits, relating the process and practice of governing to a familiar or commonly shared experience helps. In my post “On board service“, I use ships. In April, I wrote an article for the Charity Channel Nonprofit Boards and Governance Review. In this one, I use the train analogy. It seems I’m attracted to transportation analogies when describing governance!

From the review in Charity Channel:

Executive Directors who dump a pile of financials in front of board members, expecting them to have the background and expertise necessary to make heads of tails of them, are not meeting their obligations to the board, according to the latest NBGR article by Sherry Jennings. Taking the point of view of a new board member, she writes, “Most of the financial information was incomprehensible to Martin. What was nagging at Martin was that he didn’t feel like he had a complete ‘picture’ of what was going on. The information he had plodded through last night seemed like a box of spare parts.”‘
In If I’m Not Running the Train, How Do I Know We’re On Track? the author uses a down-to-earth story-telling method to drive the point home and offer up the solution.

Caroline Oliver (brilliant author and consultant on governance) likens practicing good governance to riding a bicycle. You need to take the appropriate steps and practice to do it right. She said that the traditional approach to governance is okay but it’s a bit like pushing the bicycle along rather than riding it. Riding a bicycle is difficult at first. One needs to learn a new way of balancing and may fall a few times. But once one is confident and dancing on the pedals, it feels effortless and like flying (another transportation analogy!)

From Caroline’s reflections:
“Most of us want practical solutions and would prefer to skip the theory bit. However, the boards that tend to excel in the way that they practice governance are the boards that have an idea of what they are doing and why – in other words – the ones that have a good theory!”

I would add a good process and good balance.

See Caroline’s article on Creating a Board Dashboard, also at the Charity Channel and her new book Getting Started with Policy Governance

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