Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Nonprofit governance: Changing the question

(NOTE: If this post looks familiar, that's because it is. I fixed a typo last night and the post re-published as new, rather than saved at its original release date.)

"We can more easily do this if we shift our thinking from 'What is governing?' to 'Toward what ends are we governing?'"

I already was drawing inspiration from Cathy Trower as I prepared for a recent board training session when I encountered again this quote from her marvelous The Practitioner's Guide to Governance as Leadership: Building High-Performing Nonprofit Boards. I knew instantly that this was the perfect starting point for the work that the local board and I would be doing. But as I continued to reflect on that quote, and how it set the tone for making the case for Governance as Leadership as the frame upon which they could define their work, I also realized how perfectly it describes the larger case I've been making here and elsewhere in my teaching and writing.

In a world where so much collective attention is focused on the right set of board roles and responsibilities (and, by extension, how completely most of us are failing to fulfill them), and what optimal mix of skills and demographics will lead us to perfection, Dr. Trower calls on us to take a step back and ask a more fundamental question.

While pretty much everything I write here offers some kind of response (usually with a GAL twist), as I reflect on it today, I realize that it comes down to questions centered around three core areas.


  • Why are we here? What is our vision of the future? Our mission in moving toward that better future? What is the purpose of our organization and the work that we do?
  • What is our board's purpose? How does our work advance our vision and mission? 
  • What does board leadership look like for us?
  • What are our unique contributions, as a governing body?



  • What capacities does our organization need to successfully advance its mission? What do we require, to not just get through the day but sustain our work and expand our ability to serve?
  • What specific governance capacity does the organization require from the board? From individual members?
  • How do we not only maintain board effort and motivation but expand its collective capacity to lead?
  • What competencies do we require of all board members to function effectively? What capacities do we need within the board, but not necessarily from every member?
  • In what areas must the board lead in capacity building?


  • How will we know we have succeeded as an organization? How will we visualize, and articulate, advancement (and fulfillment) of our vision and mission?
  • How will we visualize, and articulate, the board's ultimate contributions to that impact?
  • What goals will the board set for itself for that advancement? 
  • How will we know we have succeeded? What kinds of accountability measures and processes will help the board maintain focus on the leadership work needed for us to make an impact?
  • How will we acknowledge individual and collective contributions in ways that are authentic and meaningful to those who serve?
  • How will we communicate that impact to the community in ways that invite others to join us?

Boards have legitimate roles and responsibilities in answering these questions in their governance work. Obviously. They require a diverse range of skills and perspectives to accomplish that work. Obviously. But if we let tasks and recruitment matrices drive governance, rather than feed the the more critical question that Cathy poses, we will continue to fall short and we will continue to set up our boards for failure.

Your approach to answering "Toward what ends are we governing?" may not look exactly like mine, and that's fine. But our boards must be able to differentiate between this larger question of purpose and the tasks that too many are undertaking without understanding why.


Emily Davis said...

This is awesome, Debra. I love the framework of asking questions to help address those three areas. I hope to use this article with the boards I work with as an excellent example of breaking down Governance as Leadership.

Debra Beck, EdD said...

So grateful for the affirmation, Emily. I'm glad you see something worthy of sharing!