We Can Reinvent Board Governance!

Laura Pierce
October 19, 2022

The Reinventing Boards Summit affirmed that boards can be reshaped and customized to meet the needs of an individual nonprofit organization, and we can rebuild with values like equity and power sharing in mind.

In late September, NAWA hosted our second Nonprofit Innovation Summit, with a focus on reinventing boards. Since we hear regularly from nonprofits who say their board is not working well, we brought together folks with expertise in how to approach nonprofit governance differently.

Erin Kang and Linda Mollenhauer from Ontario Nonprofit Network’s Reimagining Governance Project (RGP) joined us and shared lessons learned from several years of inquiry into how nonprofit governance can evolve. They reminded us to free ourselves from traditional notions of how boards should operate and what they should do (habits and norms that are not all actually required). Instead, strip down governance to the basic legal requirements and you will see that we all have a great amount of freedom to redesign our boards. Perhaps by doing so, we can reinvigorate the role and attract people to whom the standard board model doesn’t appeal.

We discussed culture, and the fact that organizations have intended and visible culture, but in fact there are additional culture norms that are less visible or documented. Like the bulk of an iceberg, these aspects of culture are “under the waterline”—things like mindsets and narratives about “how things are” at an organization. These elements of culture need to be surfaced and examined to evolve the culture to be more inclusive and functional. RGP has tools to help nonprofits evaluate and reshape their culture, including behaviors, decision-making process, priorities, and types of leadership that are valued.

Erin and Linda also presented the idea of purpose-driven engagement, which begins with mapping constituents first and then determining how these folks should be involved in decision-making for an organization. In conjunction with this, they recommend unbundling decision-making so that one group is not responsible for all decisions. In some cases, a group other than the board may be best positioned to make a certain type of decision. This relieves pressure on the board to do it all, and it expands engagement and may support better decisions.

RGP is clearly rooted in the community, and they cited a number of examples from Ontario nonprofits. Still, we wanted to deepen our understanding of what is possible by hearing from several Washington-based nonprofits who have already reshaped how governance works at their organizations. Roshni Sampath of RVC spoke about their ongoing transformation to an organization with distributed leadership and their use of the consent principle. Diana Avalos Leos from Latino Leadership Northwest shared how their organization has slowed down and worked with a consultant to ensure that their board development process is inclusive and accountable to their core constituents, Latinx young adults. Casey Dilloway from the Whidbey Institute reported that their organization has experimented with holacracy as an organizational structure. Along with this, the board has shifted to a small (three-person) oversight board that does not interfere with the day-to-day work and voted to delegate many of the typical board duties back to the staff team.

All of the panelists indicated that changes to the board role and structure was accompanied by changes to the board composition. Some board members shifted to become active volunteers instead, while others left. Space was freed up for new people and energy.

The biggest challenge I see to implementing some of these liberating changes is that it demands that we approach board structure and governance intentionally and take the time to have dialogue about issues such as where decision-making should live and how it can be more inclusive. As Erin commented during the Summit, “Some people prefer a box.” If you may want to get out of your box, consider viewing the Reinventing Boards Summit recording and resources.  Whether you want a total change like ACT Theater, or more incremental change, there are ideas and inspiration here for you.

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