Nonprofit Boards and Their Relevance in Governance: An Invitation to Engage

Eureka,” by Jon Silver

This article has been adapted from the editorial welcome to the Nonprofit Quarterly’s spring 2018 edition, “Dynamics and Domains: Networked Governance in Civic Space.”

One of the most rapidly advancing topics in the sector right now centers on the shape and function of nonprofit governance. If you do not already know that, you need to take a moment to consider some of the more recent thinking on the subject.

The fact is, nonprofit governance has in the last fifteen years or so broken free of some preconceived assumptions that kept producing and reproducing the same problems—as systems tend to do unless you disrupt them.

Bill Ryan, nonprofit consultant and lecturer at the Kennedy School of Government, referenced this dynamic in the 2003 Nonprofit Quarterly article “Problem Boards or Board Problem?,” where he and coauthors Richard Chait and Barbara Taylor noted that underperforming boards had apparently become more the norm than the exception, despite a boatload of consulting and normative literature from which consultants were taking their cues. They then detailed a thicket of prescriptions, including the clarification of roles and responsibilities and the stricter maintenance of the boundary between policy and management questions, and concluded:

Rather than narrowing our sense of the board’s work, we should try to broaden it. In fact, in developing managers or leaders, we do precisely this. We urge them to look beyond their narrow, official job descriptions to the more subtle, important, and personally satisfying aspects of their jobs. We might try the same for boards, asking how we can make board work more meaningful for board members and more consequential for their organizations. For those who want answers now, this may entail entirely too much thrashing about the problem. But a new sense of the problem of purpose may be more useful than still more solutions to the problem of performance. The right solution to the wrong problem rarely works.

In other words, maybe we had the problem framed all wrong, and thus the solutions to that problem were far less than effective. Ryan, it turns out, was not only disrupting the comfortable assumptions of those who made their living off diagnosing and fixing board dysfunction but was also laying the groundwork for a much richer understanding of the potential and limits of the nonprofit governance functions. He eventually began to refer to the somewhat haughty dysfunction-fixing dynamic as the “nonprofit governance industrial complex.”

A few years later, David Renz, director of the Midwest Center for Nonprofit Leadership, took that thought to its next level by proposing that we had our terms of reference all wrong. In his landmark Nonprofit Quarterly article “Reframing Governance,” he advanced the notion that a nonprofit’s governance activities do not reside only in the board, and that the two terms cannot and should not be used synonymously. Renz posited at the time that:

  • Many of the shaping decisions that determine a nonprofit’s future are made externally at levels where policy and practice standards are set.
  • These loci are often more affected by organized action than by a single nonprofit.
  • This often leaves individual nonprofit boards functioning at a secondary level of decision making that is, in fact, management, unless…
  • …organizations network to take on the larger, complex, and more political questions of context.

The good thing, Renz explained, is that the best nonprofits understand all of this and do some measure of it already—but the not-so-good thing is that we do not acknowledge it as a powerful leverage point of governance. “Governance is a function,” Renz wrote, “and a board is a structure—and, as it turns out, a decreasingly central structure in the issue of new or alternative forms of governance.”

Governance processes—processes of choice-making among courses of action based on and grounded in a shared sense of mission, vision, and purpose—include the functions of setting strategic direction and priorities; developing and allocating resources; adopting and applying rules of inter-unit engagement and relationship; and even implementing some kind of ongoing system of quality assurance that operates across all of the constituent organizations. In many key areas, these processes have moved above and beyond any one nonprofit organization. Individual organizations don’t get to join or stay in the game if they do not work as an integral part of this larger whole.

Renz suggested that nonprofits sometimes act as willing prisoners to hierarchical, control-oriented organizing, and that we look toward social movement structures to understand the requirements of networked governance and to begin to work out how boards of directors could and should fit within that context.

These radical notions, from two of the best-known experts on nonprofit governance at the time, dislodged a cornerstone in what had been a solidly self-referential system of beliefs. For many, there was both an “Aha!” and an “Of course!” moment, and then all the attendant questions began to be explored both in literature and practice.

In our opinion, this is one of the most exciting and timely frontiers of practice, and a lens through which the sector may leverage great gains in its work. We think everyone will take away two or three things from a first read of these thoughtful articles. We are particularly taken by the notion of the window of collaborative opportunity referenced in the piece by Chris Cornforth, John Paul Hayes, and Siv Vangen—maybe because it evokes the fluidity of many networked governance moments. This is why readers may want to reread the articles even as the central notions being advanced sink in and they begin putting them into practice.

Over the next month, we will be running a collection of articles on this topic drawn from our latest edition of the Nonprofit Quarterly that reflects some of the inquiries described above. Far more is being explored in the field and in other disciplines of research than we include here. We invite readers to add to this discourse so that our ideas about the possibilities of networked governance can advance apace.

Meanwhile, NPQ needs your support to continue to do the intensive work required for each edition of the Nonprofit Quarterly, where we actively advance knowledge about nonprofit and movement management and governance. We encourage you to subscribe right now!

  • simonejoyaux

    Take a look at my book Firing Lousy Board Members – And Helping the Others Succeed. This book was a result of an article published in NPQ years ago.