A diverse team is working on a project together at a table.

Over the past few months, a lot has changed in terms of how organizations are operating on a daily basis. Earlier, we wrote about how this change has specifically impacted the role of a Nonprofit Boards during the pandemic. Today we look at reframing board governance.

Even before the pandemic, however, the role of many Boards was already shifting. While the stress of the pandemic certainly highlights some significant changes, many others will persist well after we return “back to normal.” To better explore this, we reviewed an article featured in the summer edition of the Nonprofit Quarterly titled Reframing Governance. Originally written in 2006, and republished both in 2012 and again this year, this piece takes a long-angle view and shows an enduring trend of how Governance Structures of Nonprofits are adapting towards an increasingly connected environment.

Reframing

In Organization Development, reframing is a common practice of thinking about something familiar in a new way. The benefits of reframing are vast. It can help uncover new possibilities or identify unseen areas of strength that were previously hidden. When confronted with an obstacle or challenge, reframing also allows that problem to be seen as an opportunity for new growth, rather than as a downside.

In this article, reframing is applied to how leaders of nonprofits think of Governance Structures, and the perspective shift is fundamental. In the traditional view of governance, the Boards of nonprofit organizations have concerned themselves only with the operation of that organization. Anything outside the boundaries of its operation was of relatively little concern towards its fundamental decisions or role. If you are active within a current board, however, you will know that this is decreasingly the case. In addition to its specific operation and scope, the non-profit space has grown increasingly interconnected. Many organizations need to concern themselves with the work of other organizations to make daily decisions. In addition to the interconnectedness, the collective scope and scale of the nonprofit sector has also grown. There are services and initiatives larger than any one solo organization. So how does this translate to individual Boards?

Governance as a Network

One of the fundamental shifts in thinking about Nonprofit Boards is from sole governing structure, to being a part of a larger network of governance for a sector or community. A few characteristics of these new networks are:

  • 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.”

Shared Accountability

Nonprofit boards often fill the role of organizational accountability. Accountability, however, looks very different when there are multiple connected organizations. In addition to the internal, often clearly defined, accountability within the organization, there is also a shared accountability that is outside the boundaries or authority of any individual Board. This creates a somewhat blurry boundary around how to hold actions accountable. Ultimately, accountability can no longer happen solely on the level of individual organizations. There must be a community level adoption of accountability between organizations and a willingness for constituent organizations to follow through on their commitments. It may feel as though a sacrifice is being made in terms of the independence or autonomy of an organization. However, shared accountability is  increasingly a huge boon to effectiveness and mission-delivery.

New Leadership

Similar to accountability, it is fascinating to consider what leadership looks like in an environment without a unified authority. It is difficult to measure “Success”  in terms of fulfilling your organization’s mission when there are so many actors involved in the final outcome. The “next level” of governance that is needed to encompass individual organizations will be built on practices of Communityship. This means the embodiment of values like collaboration, self-awareness, the ability to delegate, empathy, influence, and respect. Values like these, often associated with great leadership, is how organizations can enact their mission without a unified authority. In this mental model, some organizations may emerge as leaders for a time before another fills the role. The structure will evolve and grow over time.

With the many challenges organizations face in the current year, this opportunity to reframe governance and leadership is useful toward meeting the growing need for nonprofits.