“Why do nonprofit organizations go to such great lengths to recruit the best and brightest as trustees, but then permit them to languish collectively in an environment more intellectually inert than alive, with board members more disengaged than engrossed?”
Chait, Ryan and Taylor’s question raises the important conundrum nonprofit leaders must reconcile if their organizations are to flourish. The coauthors’ question also prompted them to write Governance as Leadership, which introduced a groundbreaking trimodal approach to board governance in fiduciary, strategic and generative spheres.
The subject of our currently featured book, The Practitioner’s Guide to Governance as Leadership, is Cathy Trower’s how-to edition, which expands upon Governance as Leadership’s influential work with a wealth of examples of high-performing nonprofit boards as well as insightful tools and guidance on how to successfully operate equally in these three celebrated modes. I asked Cathy Trower to discuss the three modes of governance in our author interview:
CausePlanet: In the book, you discuss the importance of boards utilizing three modes of governance. Will you briefly explain why this model is so effective?
Trower: It is effective because it taps the full brainpower and talent of everyone assembled in the boardroom, rather than just that of the usual, most outspoken members. It’s no secret that thinking, and ultimately decision making, are improved through the airing and understanding of divergent thinking, multiple views and diverse perspectives; respectful challenges to the status quo; and devil’s advocacy and dissent. The model, if well-practiced, allows for all of that. It drives the board up the knowledge management hierarchy from data to information to knowledge to wisdom. It gets the board away from technical problems (which can and should be addressed by management) to adaptive challenges, which are messier because they get to core issues of values and missions. It helps the board remember it is responsible with management for the long-term sustainability of the nonprofit it holds in the public trust while also being responsible for the oversight of the more mundane, though nonetheless essential aspects of the organization (e.g., legal, financial, ethical–duty of care responsibilities). It levels the boardroom playing field that in some nonprofits has been tilted toward the wealthy and powerful having the most say and sway to ensuring the best thinking emerges no matter whose. In the nonprofit board vernacular, the model rewards wisdom and work, not just wealth.
The coauthors’ three Governance as Leadership modes, which Trower discusses in her Practitioner’s Guide, have been repeatedly applied and widely accepted by nonprofits throughout the sector. Nonprofit leaders who recognize they stand or fall based on their enlightened board leadership should leverage Trower’s book as an instructive resource that illustrates an innovative approach with specificity and experience.