Editors note: This article from the summer 2020 edition of the Nonprofit Quarterly is the third iteration of “Reframing Governance,” which was first published in 2006 and substantively updated in 2012 and 2020 to adapt to new dynamics in a new world. Here, David Renz posits that while we have been obsessively focused on our organizational boards, much of the real consequential action is occurring elsewhere.
The article “Reframing Governance” was initially published in the Nonprofit Quarterly in 2006 to identify and discuss the implications of what I then perceived as a new form of nonprofit governance emerging in our communities—a form of governance that operated beyond the level of individual boards in individual nonprofit organizations and was reshaping many dimensions of nonprofit governance. I was intrigued with the growth of multiorganizational nonprofit initiatives emerging to address complex community issues and needs that outstripped the scale and significance of the usual forms of partnerships and collaborative initiatives, and, in particular, highlighted the emergence of a new level of governance integral to them. This phenomenon has continued to grow and elaborate exponentially as increasingly larger networks of public-serving organizations (nonprofit and governmental)—often labeled cross-sector collaborations1 or collective impact initiatives2—emerge to address in new and more powerful ways the most complex and wicked of our communities’ compelling needs and problems. Further, fueled by the rapid expansion of a myriad of increasingly sophisticated digital technologies and applications, these initiatives have become nearly ubiquitous across all continents. But what does that mean for today’s nonprofits and boards and governance?
The scale of these problems has outgrown the capacity of our existing freestanding organizations to respond—sometimes in terms of size, but especially, and more important, in terms of complexity and dynamism. Therefore, we’ve organized or developed our response at yet another level: the network. In the new mode, individuals and organizations are the units by which services are delivered, but such service delivery is designed, organized, resourced, coordinated, and accounted for (in other words, governed) by the overarching network of relationships (among organizational leaders) that crosses and links all participating organizations and entities. Sometimes formal and sometimes more ad hoc (as in social movements), similar dynamics have emerged in many parts of the nonprofit policy and advocacy domain, where different organizations’ actions are orchestrated by a coordinated governance process that operates largely beyond the scope of any particular board, even as it deploys lobbying resources from various individual organizations.
The New Nonprofit Governance Model
Governance is a function, 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.
Don’t get me wrong—boards are still important in organizational governance. But, for many key community problems and issues, they’re not always appropriate as the unit of focus. Governance processes—processes of decision making concerning 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 relationships; and implementing an ongoing system of quality assurance that applies to all constituent organizations. In many key areas, these processes have moved above and beyond any individual nonprofit organization. If organizations do not work as an integral part of this larger whole, they don’t get to join or stay in the game.
Why don’t we see these developments, even when we’re looking directly at them? Because we’re still prisoners of the hierarchical, control-oriented paradigm of conventional organizing—we continue to look for a central leader, whether a person or a unit. But the new governance does not look like anything we expect (even though we talk about these issues quite often). Consider these changes:
- No individual or entity is always in charge (though some certainly have more influence than others). In fact, allowing any one entity to regularly be in charge is often resisted.
- The structure continually evolves and changes (though its general characteristics remain consistent).
- We have been “trained” to focus our attention on boards rather than on governance.
Governance is not about organization; it’s an essential function in addressing a particular issue or need in our community.
For so long, individual organizations have been the default unit to address problems, and we assumed that it would always be this way. But now, more than ever, single organizations do not appropriately match the scale required for the most critical and substantive community issues and problems. It has become increasingly necessary to develop alliances and coalitions—extraorganizational entities—to address the multifaceted complexity of these critical needs and issues. And the most successful systems we’ve developed to govern these alliances reflect the same scale and complexity as the alliances themselves.
These systems of leadership embody the nature of social movements, with the fluidity and responsiveness that characterize the most effective of these movements. As anthropologist Luther Gerlach describes them, emerging systems of governance have the following characteristics:3
- Segmentary: They comprise multiple groups and organizations, each of which is only one segment of the whole that works to address the issue at hand.
- Polycentric: They have multiple centers of activity and influence to advance progress in addressing the cause of the whole, though each does its own work.
- Networked: The multiple centers of activity are linked via a web of strategic relationships, and an important source of the organizational power of this web comes from the informal relationships that exist among those in leadership roles in the various centers of activity.
- Integrated: These networks are connected by a core but evolving ideology that crosses organizational (and even sectoral) boundaries, as those who work to address the full range and complexity of an issue go wherever necessary to engage in their work.
In some cases, integration comes via those who hold a formal position in one organization (e.g., a staff position in a government agency), but who also serve in other organizations (e.g., a board member in a nonprofit agency or a leader in a relevant professional association). All these organizations play certain roles in addressing the particular issue or problem, and no single entity has the authority to direct these efforts (e.g., individuals working in AIDS prevention units or health agencies, but who are also active in advocacy organizations for HIV and AIDS prevention).
New Models of Authority and Accountability
In such networked settings, it has always been true that generative leadership and strategy are handled at the meta-organizational level; the individual organizations (or cells of operation) handle the frontline action or delivery of services (i.e., operations).
This structure is consistent with and fuels the accomplishment of an interorganizational entity’s mission, vision, long-term goals, and strategies (all of which are the domain of governance). For these domains of community action, it is no longer about the “networked organization”—it is about the “network as organization.”
These systems of organized (but not hierarchical) influence and engagement link multiple constituent entities to work on matters of overarching importance and concern. In this environment, the boards of individual organizations are guided by and often become accountable to the larger governance system. The frame of reference is larger than the constituent organization.
If you’re in one of these new systems of governance, your board has less strategic room to move. You’re dancing to the tune of a piper (or, more likely, multiple pipers) beyond your organization’s boundaries.
In other words, the governance of your work occurs largely beyond or outside your organization’s boundaries (and your organization does not really have the level of sovereignty formerly assumed).
Does this mean that boards of individual agencies are no longer relevant? No, not any more than any one program in a multiservice human-service agency is automatically irrelevant because it is part of the larger whole. The board is necessary, and, at its level, it offers critical value. But it’s not the only level of governance that exists—nor is it the overarching and highly autonomous entity that historically had the luxury of being in charge. It’s just not the only level anymore.
At their best, such governance systems demonstrate the ideal characteristics of an effective governance entity. They demonstrate resilience, responsiveness, fluidity, and an organic connectedness to the community and its changing needs. They exhibit processes of mutual influence and decision making that are more fluid but no less real than those in conventional hierarchical organizations.
So what has changed alongside this new governance?
Governance is most usefully understood from the perspective of the theory and research on interorganizational relations and, especially, the work to explain the dynamics of networks and organizations as integral but not autonomous units within networks.
What was once understood as boundary spanning has become boundary blurring. It’s increasingly hard to tell where one organization’s work ends and another’s begins, and the degree to which success can be measured is always referential to a larger whole.
Individual organizations are fundamental cells of activity and accomplishment, but their individual behavior and results are not adequate to explain what has been accomplished at the community-problem level. Fueling and enabling the emergence of this new governance is the growth in strategic alliances operating at various levels of loose or tight ties, of permanence and impermanence, and of intensity—and in the number of organizations whose capacity has evolved to engage in collaborative alliances, with the mutual investment and shared control of resources, and the sharing of risk.
All the above dynamics pose great challenges for accountability. Appropriate accountability must focus on the community level (not on an individual organization); accountability systems must include but cannot be limited to the constituent organizations and their internal management and decision-making structures.
This evolution in governance makes sense from an organizational theory perspective. It is a fundamental tenet of organizational theory that an effective organization’s design will align with and reflect the key characteristics of its operating environment. Thus, if an organization’s operating environment (including the problems it must address) is increasingly dynamic, fluid, and complex, the appropriate organizational response is a design that is dynamic, fluid, and complex.
These new levels of organizing (for which the “new governance” is emerging) have all the elements of an “organization,” but they can be confusing. Their elements just don’t look like our conventional organizational elements. Their operating imperative demands that they differ, so the successful model of organization and governance needs to be different as well.
This networked dynamic also reflects an increasingly democratic mode of organizing—at its best, it ties the action (whether provision of services or community mobilization) more closely than ever to the community to be served (and that community’s members will be actively engaged in the governance processes in play). Further, this dynamic does not pay as much attention to sector boundaries as it does to the capacity to do the work.
Thus, the organizations in the networks addressing complex community problems are likely to include individuals and ad hoc groups, governmental organizations, and even for-profit businesses, in addition to nonprofits. The mix of organizations depends on the assets they bring, where assets are defined by the nature of the problem and the needs to be addressed. One of the challenges of this emerging form of governance is that it moves the locus of control beyond any one organization. For better or worse, no single entity is in charge, and any agency that thinks it can call the shots will find its power over others muted.
Interestingly, this includes governmental entities that may still act like they are in charge. The fact that an agency has a legal or statutory mandate to address a problem does not give it any real control over the messy problems that these governance systems have emerged to address. No urban redevelopment agency, for example, has ever had the capacity to resolve its urban community’s problems without bringing other entities into the game, and, increasingly, other entities have demanded a substantive role in the decision-making process. Part of the power of this new governance is that it can better accommodate and engage this shared-power dynamic. Some individual organizations’ boards have begun to adopt this model. But these boards and organizations work at the network level, such as membership organizations comprising all the service providers in a particular domain of service (e.g., the coalition of all emergency service providers in a given metro region). These entities have been created to bridge and cross boundaries, and boards have the explicit charge of providing leadership across agency and sector boundaries to address specific community issues.
Most nonprofit boards don’t look like this because they have not seen the need. Further, most could not conceive of it—it seems too far out! But as a result of this new mode of governance, even individual agency boards now need to rethink how they should be designed and consider how they will do their work as a part of (rather than trying to actually be) the new governance design. Where might you find this new level of governance? When you look for it, using this new perspective, you’ll actually find it in operation in many domains of nonprofit work. In many metropolitan regions, for example, we find networks of organizations that have joined together to address the complex and dynamic challenges of community health—including, most recently, COVID-19.
They have their own boards, but they also have a regional planning and funding structure that overarches individual structures. This overarching structure sets priorities and coordinates the work of individual agencies, including providing the venue and organizing the processes for making regionwide decisions about fundraising, marketing, and programming.
Commonly, each of the key participating agencies’ boards sends representatives to sit on the overarching entity’s board (often these representatives are a mix of board members and chief executives). But the overarching entity’s board also includes members from outside these operating agencies, such as members of the community at large (e.g., local-issue activists) who have equal standing with agency representatives.
We see similar dynamics in many other areas of political and programmatic action: in urban redevelopment, in neighborhood revitalization, and in emergency services. In all these areas, overarching governance systems make strategic, community-level decisions that form the basis upon which individual agencies develop and implement their own plans and operations.
New Leadership and Accountability Models
Valuable as it is, we must acknowledge the unique challenges for accountability that this new dimension of governance poses. It’s hard enough to hold a typical nonprofit board accountable for its organization’s performance and impact—it is even more difficult to implement systems of formal command-and-control types of accountability for this new level. The more diffuse and fluid nature of these designs makes them inherently hard to control (which is why relational influence is so important). In reality, the locus of accountability for this new level of governance must exist “above” the individual nonprofit—at the community level—yet many philanthropic and governmental funders and regulators are likely to hold individual nonprofit agencies accountable for such community-level performance and impact. And they will often be frustrated in their attempts to do so, because there is too little leverage at the level of the individual agency. This challenge becomes especially confounding in light of federal and state legislative discussions about nonprofit accountability and regulation, essentially all of which treat the nonprofit organization as the primary unit of control.
Clearly, this new mode of governance has significant implications for the next generation of nonprofit board work. The ability to perceive this new level of operation is unique, requiring a multilevel systems perspective and a different (albeit increasingly evident) “mental model.” It requires different kinds of knowledge, skills, and abilities. This is the work of leadership, not management. So it is essential for its participants to become proficient in a different kind of leadership, particularly in the capacity to network, to build multifaceted relationships across boundaries and among diverse groups of people, and to effectively exercise influence in the absence of formal authority. (In his book On Leadership, John Gardner aptly described this as “exercising nonjurisdictional power.”4) As Peter Senge et al. explain in their 2015 article “The Dawn of System Leadership,” such leaders grow to balance short-term, reactive problem solving with long-term value creation, and to recontextualize organizational self-interest; they “discover that their and their organization’s success depends on creating well-being within the larger systems of which they are a part” as they catalyze collective leadership.5
This is such an interesting time in the evolution of nonprofit governance and our understanding of the work of nonprofit boards. While some still bemoan the absence of anything innovative or cutting-edge in the world of nonprofit governance, the reality is that we have already grown a new generation of adaptive nonprofit governance—one that is more effectively aligned with and responsive to the requirements of the organizations that come together to address the most dynamic and complex needs and challenges confronting our communities. Indeed, this new generation of governance inherently involves a changing mode of community leadership, as society moves from hierarchy to networks as the prevailing mode of organizing to meet the demands of a new time. And in this evolution lie the seeds of responsive leadership and governance in service to our communities. This is the future of nonprofit and public-service governance.
- John M. Bryson, Barbara C. Crosby, and Melissa Middleton Stone provide an excellent review and discussion of the research on the public sector–nonprofit forms of such collaborations, in their 2015 article “Designing and Implementing Cross-Sector Collaborations: Needed and Challenging,” Public Administration Review 75, no. 5 (September/October 2015): 647–63.
- As initially popularized by John Kania and Mark Kramer in “Collective Impact,” Stanford Social Innovation Review 9, no. 1 (Winter 2011): 36–41.
- Luther P. Gerlach, “The Structure of Social Movements: Environmental Activism and Its Opponents,” in Waves of Protest: Social Movements Since the Sixties, eds. Jo Freeman and Victoria Johnson (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999), 85–98.
- John W. Gardner, On Leadership (New York: Free Press, 1989).
- Peter Senge, Hal Hamilton, and John Kania, “The Dawn of System Leadership,” Stanford Social Innovation Review 13, no. 1 (Winter 2015): 28.