Monday, October 24, 2005

Boards that Make a Difference

John Carver's Boards that Make a Difference can't be called anything less than a bedrock text for nonprofit governance. Everyone who's anyone in nonprofit administration should have at least pondered over the possible implementation of this model.

My old organization used it and, while it had (more than) its fair share of dysfunction, its board I believe was quite effective. My current organization does not have any governance model and the board of directors is literally falling apart. So, from my perspective which is based on a miniscule data set, the approach works.

My boss always talks about the need for volunteer management with a board, which I think sounds kind of condescending. I prefer to think of managing a board as project management or team leading. The Carver Model has the Executive Director as being the liaison between the day to day work of the staff and the (ideally) strategic, directional work of the board of directors. To me this makes sense, and someone in an Amazon review referred to it as "codified common sense". However, this article makes a point that Carver posits his approach is the one best way, and that adaptations to it increase an organization's chance of failing at governance reform. I don't know where the article's assertions come from, but I would agree that Carver's approach can't be the only way to run your organization, even if it works for a lot of people.

A drawback with the renown of the book, though, I would say is the tendancy to reduce it down to "staff deal with the day to day, the board stays out of its way." While this is almost true, it's a soundbite out of context. What I see happening with my less-effective board of directors is that they aren't following any governance model, yet they have the impression they should be staying out of staff's work. Comments are made like, "I know we're supposed to stay out of the day-to-day, but..." In reality, they're the ones in charge, and they should govern themselves and make meaningful decisions. In my opinion, an Executive Director should facilitate this important work of the board.

To me, what this would look like would be similar to the way a former organization of mine did it. They had a manual of governance policies, which contained the "laws" of how the board governed itself. It spelled out, a la Carver, the Ends that the board was looking for and the parameters in which staff could work. It also spelled out other touchy subjects, like dealings with the Executive Director, etc. With all these kinds of administrative subjects under control, the board was then free to make each decision could be made in the context of other decisions without, as Carver would say, spending "time on the trivial".

I have heard concerns that the model is too difficult, or somehow too formal and stilted, which may or may not be the case for any given organization. However, I think that quality governance, like anything worthwhile, is difficult, takes practice, and requires continuous improvement. Effective governance, though hard, must be the standard nonprofits hold themselves to. I am sure there are other effective standards that organizations could implement, so I'm not schilling for Carver here, although he does enjoy industry-wide approval. But think about it this way: without effective governance, nothing gets done, money gets squandered and/or pocketed, and those resources are taken from those organizations who are effectively producing something worth producing. So, if you're not going to do it right, why not just go watch TV instead of sitting in that board meeting?

A good governance resource, very adaptable to volunteers, is this website.

Takeaway quote: "Failures of governance are not a problem of people, but of process." pg. xv

By John Carver
ISBN # 0787908118