What level of involvement should a non-profit board have in day to day operations? The answer is “it depends.” Chances are, if you have attended a workshop on governance you will have been taught that the Policy Governance model is the only way to go. However, it is not the correct model for every board. The governance model a board decides on is dependent on their circumstances and may change over time. What is important is that the board and staff (if any) all understand what type of board they have and stick to that model.
The policy governance model has many benefits for a well-staffed, stable organization. This model directs the board to set strategic direction and the Executive Director to implement it. This is so intuitively logical that it is hard to argue with. Staff need to understand who is directing their work. The Executive Director needs to be confident that they can make and implement decisions without excessive consultation. Typically, the board outlines the results (ends) it is expecting and identifies any rules (executive limitations) that the Executive Director must follow.
However, there are times when a policy governance board works less well. Agencies without an Executive Director are operational out of necessity. Some of these agencies aspire to have an Executive Director in the future, while for others this is a permanent state of being. These organization fall into the following categories:
- Organizations without staff: Some organizations exist perpetually without staff. For example, most service clubs. The clubs elect a board from among their membership who carry out the operations of the organization.
- New organizations: Often one of the board members will be called “Executive Director” however they are a voting member of the board and do not receive remuneration for their work. Usually there is a plan, at some time in the future to have a paid Executive Director.
- Organizations with staff but no Executive Director: Some organizations hire staff to carry out some the operations or programs of the organization, however they do not have a leadership position. In this case, one or more members of the board supervise the staff and oversee day to day administration. This may be a temporary situation, until the agency has the resources to hire an Executive Director, or it may be a small organization that functions well without a senior staff member.
Some boards operate with a hybrid model of governance. Usually, they have an Executive Director who may be part time or may spend some of their time in direct service. The board will often take on roles such as finance or human resource management that a full time Executive Director would typically be responsible for.
Even policy governance boards occasionally have legitimate reasons for temporarily stepping into a more operational mode. For example, if an agency is in crisis, the board may step in, with or without invitation from the Executive Director to manage the crisis. Typically, boards also become more operational when a new Executive Director is hired. The key to good governance, in both situations, is to understand why the board has stepped into operations and when it will remove itself. It is also crucial, that directors, especially new ones, understand the temporary nature of the governance model.
For smaller agencies, with operational boards; hold your head high. You are doing the right thing for your agency. Even larger agencies with a senior staff member may have legitimate reasons for involving boards in day to day operations. To be effective, a board must identify how it operates and be honest when recruiting new board members about their role. Board members who thrive on operations will inevitably meddle and create upset if they volunteer on a policy governance board. Board members who only have time to attend meetings and provide high level strategic direction, will be overwhelmed if they volunteer on an operational board.
If an agency functions well and can retain volunteers and staff and the relationships within the board and between the board and staff are respectful, its governance model is likely working. Rather than assuming that directors from larger organizations know more, smaller non-profits should celebrate the hard work of their directors, their grassroots involvement and their uniqueness.
Sandra Dunham is the sole-proprietor of Streamline New Perspective Solutions
Streamline New Perspective Solutions offers management consulting services for non-profit organizations. Please visit www.streamlinenps.ca