Governance IS Governance

There’s board service and then there’s governance.

Here’s a real list of Board duties from a real organization:

  • Make a financial contribution of at least $1,000
  • Purchase two tickets to the annual October gala event
  • Subscribe to the season and bring guests whenever possible
  • Attend six out of the eight board meetings per year
  • Serve on at least two committees

Are these good things to do? Likely, yes. Do they have anything to do with governance? Absolutely not.

It’s been a dozen years now since Ken Dayton’s seminal article “Governance is Governance” was published by The Independent Sector where he stated that Board members should, As representatives of the public, be the primary force pressing the institution to the realization of its opportunities for service and the fulfillment of its obligations to all its constituencies.” In essence governance is about representing the public’s best interest, pushing the organization to be its best, and assuring responsible service to the community.

Yet, we’ve gotten distracted from such profound purpose, and often settle for boards who simply participate in activities, and we have ended up with really well-meaning folks, those who have a real calling for service who, like lemmings, go to the monthly meeting with its cut and paste agenda, make a perfunctory annual gift, and hit up friends and associates to do the same. All good stuff, yet simply not governance. Wanna break the cycle? I can assure you your best board members do! Here are five questions to engage your board around:

  1. Why does what we do matter, for whom does it matter, and how is what we are doing making the kind of difference we want to see in the world?
  2. What makes our current priorities the right ones?
  3. How are we allocating our assets in ways that assure short-term survival and long-term impact?
  4. What are we doing out of habit, or simply because we’ve gotten good at it; and what needs to change in order to make us more responsive to our constituents?
  5. What opportunities are we pursuing in union with others so that we can increase the impact we are having, and assure our resources go even further?

These are not perfect questions. They might not even be the right questions for your organization. Yet it’s inquiry like this that opens up the channels for good people to provide good service…and to allow governance to flourish. Try them on. See what happens.


PS: I’m left to wonder how questions like these, if embraced by boards over the past decade, might have changed the course of numerous arts organizations we’ve been reading about of late, not least among them, the New York City Opera?

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