Components of extraordinary governance: Background and development

A compilation of ten areas of focus that successful boards must invest time in to develop.

We have all heard stories of dysfunctional nonprofit and government boards, and we could fill several pages with a list of the various problems they exhibit and subsequent organizational failures that result. So, what makes a board’s governance extraordinary, and how can other boards apply those lessons to improve their performance and the performance of their organization? I’ve worked with boards and committees for over 30 years, 20 of those with Michigan State University Extension. My colleagues and I have taught a number of techniques to improve boards, so I was intrigued a few years ago when I began to study a particular governance “model”, designed to be implemented by a board to help it be more successful.

A governance model, or framework, is a set of characteristics, practices or principles designed to help a board improve its level of performance. Some are more prescriptive about how you apply them, while others give the board a high level of flexibility to design their own process within the guidance of the framework.

The model I was studying included a number of the techniques and principles we had taught, but was also quite specific in the way it instructed a board to apply those principles. It was complete and thorough, and has been used successfully by many organizations. It assumed the presence of a CEO and staff, and required some ongoing training that would be too expensive for many boards of small organizations and governments. I began to study other models, in search of one that would be truly scalable to smaller organizations.

Several such models, lists of principles and functions, and frameworks exist. The research shows little significant advantage for the use of any particular one of them, but does indicate that the intentional, conscientious use of such a framework does correlate to better board function.

I studied eight such models. All describe principles and functions that a board must pay attention to in order to be successful. Some give detailed directions, while others leave decisions about specific details of operation to the discretion of the board. The latter empowers boards to analyze possible courses of action in light of their specific situation, and choose the methods that fit their situation the best. I’ve adopted that philosophy in calling my recommendations a framework, rather than a model.

The “components of extraordinary governance”, as I’ve chosen to call them, are made up of a combination of functions the board must carry out, principles that undergird the board’s operations and methods of operation that have been proven successful by many boards over time. The components are a compilation and reorganization of ideas contained in the eight models and lists that I have studied, measured against my experiences working with boards, serving as a member of a board, as a staff person working for a board, and my role as an educator/facilitator/consultant.

The models/lists reviewed all contributed valuable insight, and include the work of John Carver, David Renz, Judy Freiwirth, BoardSource, Robert Andringa, Mel Gill and Patricia Bradshaw. Conversations with many practitioners, board members, organization directors of various titles and university researchers and teachers have all contributed to this work. Paul Bonfanti’s work with small nonprofits has also confirmed many of my assumptions about boards of small organizations. Conversations and educational program development with many colleagues at Michigan State University also contributed greatly to this work.

Components of extraordinary governance: Ten areas that are critical to board success, Parts one, two and three outline the characteristics and briefly describe each. Future articles will discuss each of the ten in greater depth and provide recommendations for implementation.

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