Governance for boards of small organizations: Part 2

Small government boards share unique governance considerations with boards of small nonprofits.

We continue our review of Paul Bonfanti’s analysis of boards of small organizations that was started in Governance for boards of small organizations: Part 1.

Bonfanti finds that boards of smaller nonprofits are often smaller, and are made up of people with fewer political, business and fundraising connections. While this occasionally happens with small governments, the need for board members to be elected can resolve this issue in some cases, and in others, exacerbate it. The election process necessitates connections with voters, and in 21st century elections, usually requires connections with people who have money to donate. The connections that often don’t get made are those with people who have differing viewpoints on political issues. This one-sided approach to community connections can leave boards in a position where they fail to adequately consider all ramifications of their decisions.

Smaller nonprofit boards also tend to not have staff time to invest in maintaining an advisory board. Few governmental boards have advisory boards, with both individual members and the board as a whole preferring to maintain community connections on their own. Given the many roles Bonfanti and others have identified for advisory boards or committees, and the potential positive impact on successful connections in the community, perhaps government boards are missing a valuable opportunity to utilize advisory boards to improve communication with constituents. Governmental bodies would have to be careful to use an advisory board or council to build and strengthen relationships and communication throughout the community, rather than allowing an advisory board to effectively insulate them from certain types of community input

The fourth difference between large and small nonprofits that Bonfanti identified was a difference in focus. He speaks of two significant points here. The first is a greater likelihood to use board members as volunteers among small nonprofits. As discussed earlier, this also occurs in smaller governments which have fewer resources with which to hire staff, and it does tend to focus the efforts of board members on operational details rather than the important work of governance. The second difference in focus is that smaller nonprofit board members are less likely to actively raise funds for the organization. This difference has been less relevant for governments as they use tax and fee structures to raise revenue. Imagine for a minute how it might revolutionize local governments’ interactions with their communities if they treated all constituents with the same level of respect and attention that a nonprofit board gives to those who voluntarily donate to their organization.

Michigan State University Extension educators provide education and facilitation for boards of all sizes, with a focus on government boards by the Government and Public Policy Workgroup. Part three of this series finishes the analysis of the difference between boards of small and large organizations, and part four wraps up the series with Bonfanti’s recommendations.

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