Iowa City School Board Looks at Models of Democratic Governance: Listen up Nonprofits and Philanthropy!

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September 14, 2011; Source: Iowa City Press-Citizen |  There are sometimes odd and surprising ways in which the nonprofit sector demonstrates its influence in other realms of our society. A guest editorial in the Iowa City newspaper addresses questions of how the seven-member Iowa City Community School Board functions.

The writer is Sarah Swisher, herself a member of the school board. She takes to task people from the corporate world who have been drawn to the board-governance model developed by John Carver. Swisher suggests that this model has drifted from its origins in the for-profit sector into the nonprofit sector because so many corporate types now serve on nonprofit boards. She notes that the Carver board governance model emphasizes “strong executive leadership that is minimally limited.”

But Carver went too far in marketing his trademarked consultant-attracting “Carver Model of Policy Governance” to a publicly elected school board, Swisher says. To provide a CEO with “a false carte blanche providing he doesn’t fail to succeed” (double and triple negatives litter the language of the Carver model) is simply not what voters want when they elect school board members. As an alternative, she suggests a “deepening democracy” model called “Empowered Participatory Democracy . . . [in which] committees and task forces have real voices and authority.” That means involving parents, teachers, students, and union members in very active, hands-on tasks—such as interviewing and hiring school principals—that strong CEOs might see as injecting too much citizen intrusion into the process.

Board governance models are topics of active debate in nonprofit and philanthropic circles, but usually the mechanics of publicly elected boards are rooted in past practices that few people are wont to question, much less change. To see the nonprofit sector’s debates brought into the public sector is a testament to the increasing influence of nonprofit-sector principles of good governance as well as a reflection of the demand of many people to improve the workings of American democracy. But nonprofits might also want to take this moment to reconsider their own governance processes, and if you have not read it already we would suggest the NPQ article “Community Engagement Governance: Systems Wide Governance in Action.” —Rick Cohen

  • Karen Bassler

    As a governance consultant, I am leery of anything that has been trademarked or is sold as a “complete package” that must be used in its entirety, as is the Carver model. Allowing for flexibility in governance generates innovation and new ways of thinking about the roles of the Board. Simply plugging in the pieces of a ready-made system fosters stagnation and, worse, a focus on process rather than outcomes.