Monday, January 10, 2011

"Boards are dead..."

"Boards are dead. Long live governance."

That catch phrase/theme emerged in the first governance track session at the 2010 ARNOVA (Association for Research on Nonprofit Organizations and Voluntary Action) conference in November, growing with each new set of papers and discussions. I've been thinking about that, off and on, since returning to Laramie, wondering what that phrase might mean to board members and practitioners in the field. (Scholars are full of ideas, not all of them translating well to the "real world" in which boards and executives work.)

I can't vouch for what every participant in those discussions had in mind as the phrase was batted about, but I do have a few thoughts about what it means to me and how it might relate to governance practice.

"Boards are dead..."

  • as most agendas currently define them
  • as homogeneous (in demographics and thought) entities
  • as lines on resumes
  • as "any live body will do" recruitment
  • as oriented - or not oriented

"Long live governance..."

  • as community leadership
  • as mission advocacy
  • as generative work
  • as a meaning-making/fulfilling experience
  • as boundary spanning
  • as mission-driven work
  • as direction-defined/defining responsibility
  • as inspirational and inspiring service
  • as setting the tone of leadership for the organization*

I trust that colleagues and other readers will have their own interpretations of the phrase and how it might translate into governance practice - both as it exists now and as it could be conceived to greater effectiveness. I'm interested in reactions from the field, both from board members and those who support them. Is there any merit in the way that statement frames the discussion about the challenges that nonprofit boards face? Or does it only muddy the waters?

* A marvelous addition recommended by the wise Bonnie Koenig. Thanks, Bonnie!


Nancy said...

My first thought after reading the phrase was that most boards I work with or sit on wouldn't get it.

For people working in the field of governance, I can see that it represents a significant shift in focus (and an exciting one to be sure).

I don't find the phrase nearly as helpful as your perspective on what it means for the future.

Bonnie Koenig said...

Agree that giving examples is so much more important than just generically talking about 'governance'. I find that this term means so many different things to be almost useless without specific examples. I like your initial list.

You might want to add a item about 'setting the tone of leadership for the organization' - often Boards follow more than they lead or try to lead through printed words and not also through their actions...

Debra said...

I'm so grateful for your feedback on this, Nancy and Bonnie. I've been bouncing it around in my brain since November, debating if/how it contributes to the conversation - in ways that mean something to board members.

I found myself wearing two hats on this, and your comments reflect those two perspectives nicely. For those of us who consult, teach or otherwise support/advance nonprofit governance, there does feel like a healthy shift represented in their phrase. Discussion centered on that could help foster a productive shift.

But what does it mean to the board member in the field? To the ED walking that perpetual tightrope as the other half of the leadership team?

The former conversation can be a healthy one, but my bias - like yours - remains on how the work occurring in the field is impacted. How do we increase the effectiveness and meaningfulness of those who serve?

Oh, and Bonnie, I'm adding that bullet point the moment I click send on this comment. Fantastic addition! :)

Alexandra Peters said...

For me the problem is not with your excellent list, Debra, but with the phrase "Boards are dead..." I understand that you mean it in the sense of "The King is dead, long live the King!:" We need a new order, a new way of looking at things. But I'm hoping we don't actually need to kill the board.

A new name for the board? That would be great. I never understood why we don't say "board of Governors" here, as they do in Canada and the UK. Governors do governance. and it clears up that confusion about "director".

But is the problem the board itself? If we throw out this structure but don't have a new and better King/board, aren't things functionally going to revert being the same? I think I'd rather put that in place before we get rid of the old board system. There's revolution and there's evolution - I think evolution is more enduring.

Loved what you said about scholars and the real world!

Debra said...

That bothered me as well, Alexandra. The 'throw the baby out with the bath water' tone - when the baby may simply need a little extra soap behind the ears - feels misguided. I've long held that the real issue is lack of clarity by boards regarding the full scope of governance - especially when what often is left out is what draws many to service in the first place.

The spirit of the phrase resonated, even as I disagree with the diagnosis of the issues we're attempting address.

But then, I spend a lot of time serving on, and working with, real boards.