Some musings about nonprofit governance

I learned a new word from FaceBook this week. The Japanese word tsundoku, defined as a) buying books and not reading them or b) letting books pile up unread on shelves or floors or nightstands. It seems half my friends and I are guilty of tsundoku. (If this isn’t really Japanese or a word, it should be).

Like tsundoku, today’s post includes some ideas and thoughts that have been piling up that I’ve been meaning to share with you.

Last week at the annual conference of the Alliance for Nonprofit Management, I was introduced to the phrase “contingency theory” relating to nonprofit governance.

What is contingency theory? Basically, there is no one right model of nonprofit governance, though there are governance functions (e.g. allocation of resources, setting strategic direction, planning for the future, relationship with outside stakeholders,implementing a system of quality assurance) that need to be fulfilled in every nonprofit or network. 1

Now I’m sure that you’ve been to many a workshop that describes how a board must operate. Hopefully, though, in the workshops you’ve attended, mine included, you’ve been given guidelines in how to design effective governance practices and not a rigid model on what a board must look like.

One thing I’ve learned, and that researchers are now confirming, is that governance structures should be uniquely adapted to (contingent upon) the unique needs of any particular nonprofit, influenced by lifecycle, values, culture, age, staffing, the community, the resource base, and just about ever other aspect of a nonprofit we can name.

While we are used to looking to nonprofit boards for governance, not all governance functions need to be centered in the board.2 (I’m extremely intrigued with Community Engagement Governance and have worked with organizations that have put elements of this into practice).  And David Renz, director of the Midwest Center for Nonprofit Leadership at the University of Missouri – Kansas City, reminds us that for many nonprofits are in networks: while “the individual nonprofit will be the unit from which services are delivered, that delivery is planned, organized, resourced and coordinated — in other words, governed — through a web of overarching and integrating relationships..”  3

To quote my colleague Judy Frewirth of Nonprofit Solutions Associates , “governance IS about power, authority and control”. When we acknowledge that, we can and must be very deliberate and clear about our values around power in relationship to our community, our clients, our people. Where we seat governance matters as we seek to build the communities, organizations and civic participation we want to see in the world.

In a room filled with governance gurus and nonprofit capacity builders, the overwhelming consensus was that our current board model is stuck in the industrial past. We need to constantly evolve – or totally transform — governance structures to be smart, nimble, responsive and adaptive to the new world order of uncertainty and rapid change.

So if getting governance right is something you are struggling with, don’t be discouraged. Good governance is more than a function. It’s also a continuous journey.


If you want to dig deeper, try these readings (and hopefully they won’t pile up on your shelf)

1 Nonprofit Governance Models, Problems and Prospects

2 Community Engagement Governance

3 Reframing Governance

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