The Best Combination

How can nonprofit organizations best provide responsive charitable services and simultaneously create social change?

A two-part answer helps significantly: improved governance and management. Strength in both these areas is essential to organization performance.

Great Governance
Trustees of nonprofit organizations play a critical role via tenacious, thoughtful leadership that insists on choices which yield measureable progress. Their governance role is specifically designed to review management competencies and associated organizational performance. Their function, in trust, to multiple publics is as a watchguard for the organization’s mission. It could be high quality education, hunger relief, women’s independence or children’s safety. As the “guard,” trustees are not necessarily cozy protectors of staff. Trustees don’t seek self-interest, they seek the common good.

These roles can put volunteers in a tough position. Regardless, their first duty isn’t as social support for each other or staff but to ensure that the community is well-served. This is their principal accountability. They should guide, question, provoke, measure, encourage and demand organization performance. Trustees must be willing to be unpopular in order to tackle tough decisions. It is both necessary and fair for trustees to set explicit, high expectations. As demands on time mount, doing a great job in governance isn’t easy.

Capable Management
When talented management does their work well they lead organization priorities and plans. They interact responsibly with both trustees and their peers in allied organizations. Capable non-profit managers have a long list of critical responsibilities. While surveilling and interpreting the external environment, managers also gather resources, develop staff competencies, communicate effectively, skillfully design and implement appropriate programs for those in need and pursue a change agenda (to erode the conditions that disable people). Some nonprofits provide charitable services, others exist to create social change and some have a mix of both agendas.

The requisite talent for this work include both attributes as well as knowledge and skills. A commitment to transparency, integrity, equity, empathy, learning, candor, others, and passion are all on my must-have list. Professionals believe and act on these values or they don’t. Critical knowledge and skills include a broad repertoire of design, planning, analysis, evaluation, facilitation, applied research, political acuity, policy, change/project management, marketing, communications, coalition–building and distinct subject matter expertise (in education, health, youth, seniors and other areas). Capable management can lead and be team members. They have enough wisdom and experience to coach others.

Strong : Strong
The best combination of governance and management is when both are strong. A strong executive can take advantage of a weak board or engage them in inappropriate roles. Similarly, a weak executive will never deliver what’s needed for an organization to perform. The relative proficiency of the nonprofit sector to process change is an essential, adaptive reflex. It could mean fewer organizations. It should mean a healthy dissatisfaction with the status quo and new ways of working.

We all need talent in both functions that will take strategic, progressive action. The “exempt” reference that precludes tax payments isn’t a free pass at accountability – whether in governance or management.

-Lisa Wyatt Knowlton, Ed. D. is a strategy architect and partner in Phillip Wyatt Knowlton, Inc. PWK is a performance management resource for systems and social change with clients worldwide. She is also a W.K. Kellogg Leadership Fellow.Contact her at:lisawk@pwkinc.com.

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