October 23, 2014


Nonprofit Boards and Governance

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Nonprofit Boards and Governance

Brenda Summers

Research on nonprofit boards and governance has quadrupled since the mid-1990s according to David O. Renz, guest editor for a special summer 2012 issue of Nonprofit Management & Leadership. The issue presents new research on boards and governance.  

"Effective [board] chairs shared common characteristics that were polar opposites from those of less effective chairs," according to Yvonne D. Harrison and Vic Murray, the authors of one of the articles in the issue.  

Effective board chairs boosted the morale of the CEO and staff, held focused efficient meetings, increased board commitment to the nonprofit and found common ground when differences arose among members. According to the authors, less effective chairs inhibited major change, used their position to advance their personal career or agenda, were dictatorial or uncomfortable in a leadership role, and created or avoided conflict.

Harrison and Murray provide four suggestions for improving board chair leadership:

  • clarify the nature of the chair's role and communicate its importance to all those who interact with the chair,
  • regularly assess the leadership effectiveness of the chair,
  • provide development opportunities for those who serve as chairs, and
  • develop a succession plan for board leadership.

An article by Gavin Nicholson, Cameron Newton and Myles McGregor-Lowndes, reports on a study to validate a tool for diagnosing boards as teams.  The tool reliably measures four components that appear to influence board effectiveness.  The components are:  

  • clearly-defined boundaries for team governance,
  • an appropriate mix of talent,
  • a clear vision of the role of both the board and the organization,
  • sufficient information and processes to operate effectively, and
  • feedback processes so boards can evolve and grow.

The importance of feedback and assessment processes is echoed in an article by Hans Lichtsteiner and Vanessa Lutz.  The authors investigated the role of self-assessment in the Swiss nonprofit sector and found that a majority of the organizations participating in their survey did not carry out self-assessments. The nonprofit boards that did assessments often developed their own criteria, and some boards "lacked the basic willingness to evaluate their own performance."

An article by Christopher Fredette and Patricia Bradshaw examines the importance of social resources within boards in Canadian nonprofits. The authors tell us, "Bonding within the boardroom is a salient aspect of effective governance."  In their study they find that board effectiveness increases as members share information, develop a collective vision, and build trust.  

Nonprofits "need to balance their social goals with commercial realities," according to two contributors to the issue, Lesley Vidovich and Jan Currie.  To respond to commercial realities, nonprofits tend to seek board members who also serve on boards of for-profit businesses. 

The authors report that advantages of intersecting corporate-nonprofit board networks include corporate donations and knowledge coming to the nonprofits from the commercial world.   Disadvantages include uncritical transfer of knowledge, clash of cultures, and exacerbation of social inequalities if economic-oriented thinking dominates non-economic considerations in board decision-making. 

As a whole, the articles in the issue demonstrate that core questions about the performance of boards cross international boundaries and are being studied using multiple methodologies.  The authors reveal internal dynamics of nonprofit boards that influence the boards' effectiveness.  David Renz offers us articles that advance our understanding of what we know and still need to learn about nonprofit boards.       

Dr. Brenda Summers teaches nonprofit management courses at North Carolina State University and offers consulting services.

 

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