Reframing governance

[Editor’s note: This column is excerpted from an article to be published in the winter 2006 edition of The Nonprofit Quarterly.]

By David Renz

Is the nonprofit board synonymous with nonprofit governance?

Not even close.

While nonprofits have been struggling to ensure that their boards are effective vehicles providing substantive guidance, many have missed the fact that the domain of nonprofit governance has been shifting.

With changes in the complexity, pace, scale and nature of community problems and needs, and the emergence of strong fields of practice and funders with disproportionate influence, governance increasingly has moved beyond the sphere of the individual nonprofit board.

In settings where nonprofits are working to tackle complex and entrenched community issues, the individual nonprofit will be the unit from which services are delivered, but that delivery is planned, organized, resourced and coordinated — in other words, governed — through a web of overarching and integrating relationships.

These relationships cross boundaries and link individual organizations to create processes of mutual influence and decision-making, more fluid but no less real than that to be found in conventional hierarchical organizations.

And in these settings, organizations must either work through this larger whole or fail to remain viable.

Not understanding this reality can lead organizations and their boards to become mere pawns of larger forces.

Governance at this higher level is integrated by a core evolving ideology, and the ability to influence that ideology becomes critical to the sustainability and actualization of the mission of the individual organization.

Thus, even the concept of the “networked organization” falls short: Our future is more about the “network as organization,” networks being systems of organized — but not hierarchical — influence and engagement that link multiple constituent entities to work on matters of overarching importance and concern.

In these new systems of governance, which operate much like social movements, a board has less strategic “room” to move and make choices; it remains vital through the effective exercise of influence in the network.

Networks as governance systems have upsides and downsides.

At their best they exemplify the ideal characteristics of effective governance — resilience, responsiveness, fluidity and an organic connectedness to community needs.

Too often, however, nonprofits fail to understand how to work effectively in such an environment.

And at their worst, such networks can lead to a submissive posture that reinforces blind hegemony and elitism.

This context of networked governance poses unique but also exciting challenges:

* How do nonprofits and communities ensure that these networks are responsive to the needs of those they are meant to serve?

* How do individual nonprofit organizations exercise appropriate and effective influence if networks cannot be “controlled”?

* And will these brave new modes of governance deliver the results that we need, or merely blur the lines of accountability and transparency?

These are just a few of the significant questions of this new age of governance.

David Renz is director of the Midwest Center for Nonprofit Leadership at the University of Missouri – Kansas City.

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