Community-Engagement Governance™: Systems-Wide Governance in Action

The following is an abbreviated version of a recently published feature article in the latest edition of The Nonprofit Quarterly (Spring 2011). The full version describes several case studies, a fuller description of the Community-Engagement Governance™ Framework, its principles and the research findings in more detail. You can also order a reprint of this article. For more in-depth articles about nonprofit management issues and trends, you can learn more about one- or two-year subscriptions to NPQ.

The following is an abbreviated version of a recently published feature article in the latest edition of The Nonprofit Quarterly (Spring 2011). The full version describes several case studies, a fuller description of the Community-Engagement Governance™ Framework, its principles and the research findings in more detail. You can also order a reprint of this article. For more in-depth articles about nonprofit management issues and trends, you can learn more about one- or two-year subscriptions to NPQ.

It has become increasingly clear that traditional governance models are inadequate to effectively respond to the challenges faced by many nonprofits and their communities. Yet most nonprofits and capacity builders continue to rely on these models, hoping that more training or improved performance will transform the way their organizations are governed, only to realize that the underlying problems remain.

In response to the need for new approaches to governance, a national network of practioners and researchers known as the Engagement Governance Project, sponsored by the Alliance for Nonprofit Management (the national organization of capacity builders), has developed a new governance framework, Community Engagement Governance™. The Engagement Governance Project has launched a national participatory action research project with pilot organizations from around the country. The research has produced some exciting results which are briefly described in this article.

Why New Governance Approaches Are Needed

Traditional governance approaches, based on corporate models and outdated, top-down “command and control” paradigms, still dominate the nonprofit sector. Within these models are strong, inherent demarcations between board, constituents, stakeholders and staff, with the executive director often the only link between the various parts of the organization.

This type of separation commonly results in the disconnection of the board and, ultimately, the organization from the very communities they serve. It inhibits effective governance and accountability. Moreover, the pervasive trend toward “professionalism,” with boards comprised of “experts” who may or may not be engaged with the organization’s mission, has tended to deepen the class divide between boards and their communities. Ultimately, these models prevent nonprofits from being effective – that is, responsive and accountable to the communities they serve.

Perhaps most important, the nonprofit sector should foster and advance democracy and self-determination. If a nonprofit organization is to be truly accountable to its community and constituencies, democracy must be at its core. Yet, the nonprofit sector has typically tended to replicate structures and processes that actually hinder democracy within organizations,impeding an organization’s efforts to achieve its goals and fulfill its mission.

Beyond the Board as the Sole Locus of Governance

Community-Engagement Governance™ is an expanded approach to governance, built on participatory principles, that moves beyond the board of directors as the sole locus of governance. It is a framework in which responsibility for governance is shared across the organization, including the organization’s key stakeholders: its constituents and community, staff, and the board. Community-Engagement Governance™ is based on established principles of participatory democracy, self-determination, genuine partnership, and community-level decision making.

The Community-Engagement Governance™ framework helps organizations and networks become more responsive to their constituents’ and communities’ needs and to become more adaptive to the changing environment. Because no one governance model can fit all organizations, the framework was designed as an approach, rather than a model. This means it can be adapted to each organization’s unique needs and circumstances.

“Community-Engagement Governance™ in Action”: Action Research Findings

Nine diverse organizations are currently piloting the Community-Engagement Governance™ framework and adapting it to their constituencies, missions, stages of development, strategic directions and external factors. These nine organizations have a wide range of missions, annual budgets, developmental stages, constituencies and types of communities served, adaptive capacities and staff sizes. They include national, state-wide and community-based organizations, coalitions and networks.

Key Findings/Benefits of Using the Framework

Although the action research is continuing, several significant preliminary findings illustrate the benefits of this approach:

  • Increased ability to respond to community needs and changes in environment; increased accountability to community
  • Improved quality and efficiency of governance decision making: Increased strategic thinking, creativity and problem-solving ability
  • Increased shared ownership of the organization’s mission and strategic directions
  • An increase in new and more distributed leadership
  • Improved ability to engage in deep collaboration with other nonprofits
  • Increased visibility within the broader community
  • Increased fundraising capacity and sustainability
  • Increased transparency and community ownership, and more effective large-group decision making, through the use of social media and web portals
  • Boards that are more engaged, passionate and transparent about their organization’s strategic direction and programs

We are looking for additional organizations who are interested in participating in the Community Engagement Governance Project. For more information about the project or the framework, contact Judy Freiwirth at Judy@NonprofitSA.com.


Judy Freiwirth, Psy.D. is an affiliated consultant with TSNE’s Executive Transitions and Organizational Transitions Programs and principal of Nonprofit Solutions Associates. She is a leading trainer and consultant in the area of nonprofit governance and board development, and has been a keynote speaker and trainer at many national and regional conferences.

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