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Embracing partnership: A promising paradigm for nonprofit governance 

A group of business people at a board meeting.

Traditionally, nonprofit governance has been perceived through a hierarchical lens, with board members primarily overseeing and guiding the organization’s direction while staff execute the operational tasks. However, in the dynamic landscape of contemporary social change, there is a growing recognition of the need to evolve from this conventional approach toward a more collaborative and inclusive model—one grounded in partnership.  

As someone deeply committed to the principles of good governance, I eagerly accepted the opportunity to serve on Candid’s board as Governance Committee chair and help shape the organization’s strategic vision. I facilitated check-in meetings that fostered active engagement among board members, encouraging them to reflect on how their unique strengths could propel Candid toward its vision. I firmly believe that effective nonprofit governance hinges on the board’s ability to operate optimally, leveraging its collective expertise and passion to drive meaningful change. My experience with Candid reinforced the notion that the best work gets done when the board and staff collaborate closely. 

The nonprofit governance orthodoxy

Nonprofit governance operates within a framework of three legal duties. The duty of care ensures that the board of directors provides oversight to responsibly manage the organization’s assets, including its people and financial resources. The duty of loyalty requires board members to prioritize the organization’s mission over individual interests. The duty of obedience mandates adherence to laws and compliance requirements for nonprofits. 

At the same time, focusing solely on compliance can stifle an organization’s ability to think more creatively and strategically. For instance, when boards overly prioritize routine tasks like policy development and operational management, they risk missing opportunities for innovation and could fail to address emerging challenges with a holistic perspective. 

Alternatively, when boards take a more collaborative approach to these duties, working together with staff, they can help advance the organization’s mission and vision.  

Two prevalent scenarios, both lacking collaboration

I’ve observed two nonprofit governance scenarios prevalent across the sector. In some organizations, a top-down hierarchical structure dominates, with board members exerting control over decision-making processes and stifling innovation among staff. This approach can lead to a reactive, rather than proactive, approach to addressing community needs. In other organizations, staff assume a more dominant role in setting strategy and policy, marginalizing the board’s ability to provide strategic direction and oversight. In both cases, the genuine collaboration between board and staff necessary for the organization to adapt, innovate, and effectively serve its mission is lacking.  

In my role at the National Council of Nonprofits, I’ve had the opportunity to observe the day-to-day operations of numerous nonprofits through our network. One standout initiative that caught my attention is the work of the Ontario Nonprofit Network (ONN), which embarked on a profound exploration of reimagining governance, bringing in the work of other partners to examine a more comprehensive approach. Particularly compelling is their emphasis on fostering collaboration between boards and staff and expanding the role of governance to a governing ecosystem to rethink governance dynamics. 

I saw firsthand how empowering it is to move away from a traditional hierarchical structure to a partnership when the Candid Governance Committee established an Impact Assessment taskforce. Through mutual respect for the others’ expertise, the board and staff worked together to establish a measurement framework by which to track our progress toward our vision of strengthening the social sector.  

Essentials of partnership governance 

To implement partnership governance effectively, nonprofits should consider several key principles: 

  • Respect: Foster a culture of mutual trust and respect between board and staff. Recognizing and valuing both parties’ unique expertise enriches decision-making processes and enhances organizational effectiveness. Moreover, it catalyzes the inclusion of diverse perspectives and leads to better decision making and overall results. 
  • Mission and vision alignment: Ensure alignment on the organization’s mission, vision, and values. This may seem more straightforward for newly formed organizations, but it also is crucial for established organizations. Implementing retreats, cross-functional committees, and generative discussions that involve both board and staff members can help ensure cohesion and shared direction. 
  • Nurturing culture: Cultivate a healthy organizational culture characterized by transparency, inclusivity, and accountability through open communication, mutual trust, and a willingness to embrace diverse perspectives. As part of this effort, it is imperative for both the board and staff to identify any harmful practices or perspectives, then work together to dismantle them. 
  • Evaluation of partnership: Regularly evaluate the effectiveness of the board-staff relationship. Soliciting feedback, identifying areas of strength and opportunities for improvement, and fostering open dialogue enable nonprofits to adapt their governance practices to changing circumstances effectively. 

The key to successful evaluation lies in making a commitment to the process and sharing the findings openly. Addressing opportunities for improvement collectively allows for course correction when needed, while celebrating successes reinforces positive practices and encourages continued collaboration.  

The promise of partnership governance

A partnership-based governance model holds immense promise for nonprofits seeking to maximize their impact and relevance as organizations grapple with shifting and, in some cases, polarizing issues, climate change, the impact of technology, and more.  With the board and staff collaborating and bringing their lived experiences and knowledge together, the organization can be more impactful in its work. Embracing principles of collaboration, transparency, and inclusivity, they can unlock the full potential of their board and staff, fostering resilience, innovation, and community-centered solutions.  The transformative power of governance as partnership can support nonprofits in serving as catalysts for change.

Photo credit: mapodile via Getty Images


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  • Vanessa Phipps says:

    May 9, 2024 1:48 pm

    I appreciate this less hierarchical, more partnership-driven approach to board governance...would love to understand more about how to finesse those relationships in a way that allows non-profit leaders to function with a level of independence that supports their ability to manage operations and support staff performance.

    Great article!