Reimagining Governance – Interview with Co-Leads

We all know that the standard, one-size-fits-all model of governance does not work for every organization. In fact, it probably does not work for most organizations. In my reading, I came upon the Reimagining Governance Initiative of the Ontario Nonprofit Network (ONN) in Toronto. I reached out to the co-leads, Linda Mollenhauer from Ignite NPS and Erin Kang from ONN to hear more. Here is what I learned:

How did Reimagining Governance get started?

Linda: About three and a half years ago, a few governance consultants were talking about our frustrations with the way governance was working and it occurred to us that we had been having these same conversations for years, if not decades. One of our observations was that we had been focused on the same symptoms and not getting to the real root issues. When we shared the case for change, it resonated widely. The Ontario Nonprofit Network figured it was time to challenge some assumptions and provoke a shift in the way we think about governance.

The initiative started with some research to get a better understanding of what was going on. We did not want to repeat data-driven research that already existed. Instead, we worked with Mowat NFP and focused on qualitative research and storytelling. What we learned is that the way we had been thinking about governance was not going to take us into the future because of the increasing complexities in the landscape.  

Erin: Research was also done with emerging leaders, getting their views on governance. Again, it was story driven. The research was clear that many next-generation leaders are not attracted to the same kinds of structures and processes put in place by baby boomers. They think about governance differently. For example, they were saying, “I don’t necessarily need to sit on a traditional organization’s board to satisfy my need to bring about change and my passion for a cause. I can start up my own organization or do it in many other ways.”

Linda: Based on this research, we took the time to clearly identify the problem we were solving for. We  held conversations with key influencers, which resulted in a framing visual and a Strategic Framework. Our research identified governance design as the problem.

Where did the research take you?

Erin: One of our key insights is that governance is a complex system that goes beyond just creating more effective boards. We developed a map to show the interconnected influencers and components that shape a nonprofit organization’s governance system. Usually, you see descriptions of governance based on its structure, starting with the board and flowing from there in a linear way –board roles, board committees, and board responsibilities. We started with a subtle shift in what we mean by governance – and then let form follow function.

What were the key symptoms that were red flags for you?

Linda: We should reinforce that we are not saying that governance is not working. We can name many examples of strong governance. But our research found that it is not consistently effective and a good part of the reason is that it’s a constricted model with unrealistic expectations of what a few people around a board room table can do. Our goal is to change the conversation and provoke a shift toward innovation.

Erin: For example, boards have spent a lot of time trying to be more diverse — which is good and necessary. But focusing on, let’s say a 12-person board, is constraining because you want those 12 individuals to represent so many different life experiences, skills, competencies, and demographics. And for so many organizations it’s challenging to get the diversity and competencies without leaning toward tokenism.

We want to reframe the question from “How do we populate our board with the diversity and competencies we need?” to “How can we get the competencies and diversity we need in our governance decision-making to reflect and navigate this new landscape?” If we change the question, we unlock possibilities, such as where else can we find competencies and diversity and bring them into a “network” of governance?

Linda: We also struggle with the line-in-the-sand approach that says that boards do governance and staff execute and do operations.  We think it’s a false line that doesn’t help. For example, if you look at governance more broadly than just the legal and regulatory responsibilities of the board, then the CEO does as much governance work as the board.

Erin: We have identified the functions of governance, which are not the descriptors you would normally see. We’ve removed the roles and responsibilities that are operational, such as fundraising, implementing engagement strategies, and program development. All of these are important work, but they are not governance work. We think focusing the functions of governance will encourage conversations about how these governance functions can be fulfilled.

What are some of the ways you are approaching governance differently?

Linda: We’ve stayed away from creating a governance model because there are no one-size-fits-all models. Instead, we have created different pathways that organizations can take to design their governance. One pathway is a fairly extensive process, which we’ve called the Transformative Design Process. It is a journey of reflection, discovery, and action. It allows organizations to design their own governance based on their unique circumstances – so solutions are custom-built solutions and innovative.

We have also taken an aspiration-based approach rather than a problem-solution approach. We think it will force people to move away from trying to solve symptoms and instead focus on the larger system and where that can take their governance.

How are you implementing this?

Erin: We’re just now in the process of working with different organization’s in learning labs to test and iterate the various pathways. Ultimately, we will be releasing all our processes, tools, and resources more broadly, but first we want to make sure they work. It will be messy and fabulously interesting to co-create on the ground with these organizations. Each organization will be supported by a facilitator. The organizations will do a deep dive into their current governance system, create aspirations, and then figure out the key levers that will help achieve them. We also plan to capture stories of innovation that we can share broadly.

Linda: While we want many organizations to use our Transformative Design Process and our tools, another critical goal is to generate lots of stories about how governance can be done differently. Hopefully, we can burst assumptions. Some changes might be incremental but still represent a shift in mindset. Others might be deep and profound. We want to have enough stories so people begin to understand that they can do things differently, that they don’t have to continue to do what they’ve always done.

What is the biggest barrier to reimagining governance?

Erin: Funders being prepared to look at alternatives. Another challenge is that lots of people, along with passion for the cause, join boards to build experience and add to their resumes. If we have a more   networked approach to governance, how do you meet that need? We’ve thought about how we can create more cache for roles that aren’t just the board – such as Impact Advisor.

Linda: Time is a barrier too with so many organization’s in crisis right now. Interestingly though, there was a lot of enthusiasm by organizations that wanted to be a part of our learning labs. Many organizations want to build back better.

Erin: We’ve also been thinking about what will attract younger leaders. We learned that they need to see that organizations are truly committed to change. They want to see that organizations are serious about distributing power, about stepping down and making space for others, about challenging the colonial roots of how everything is done. And they definitely want to throw out Robert’s rules!

What is your time frame for the Learning Labs and plans for when you might communicate what you learn?

Linda: Our learning labs will be done in the fall, so we will have lots to share then.  

Erin: I am a story person, and there will definitely be some interesting stories to tell about what we’ve learned. We look forward to sharing the challenges and spotlighting insights.  

People who are interested can visit our website and social media. They can follow ONN (@o_n_n on twitter), sign up for the broader ONN newsletter, or they can sign up specifically for Reimagining Governance updates on our webpage.

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