Tuesday, March 1, 2016

What the Real Deal with Nonprofit Boards?

On February 18, the PNLC launched a new lunch hour learning series called Theory to Practice (T2P). T2P takes what Humphrey students are learning in the classroom and discusses what this looks like in practice in the sector. Topics of discussion range from the public and nonprofit sectors, to leadership and management.

The series was kicked off with an in-depth and insightful conversation about nonprofit boards and governance. Two nonprofit governance experts led the discussion: Melissa Stone, Gross Family Professor of Nonprofit Management at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, and Julia Classen, Principal Consultant and Co-Founder of Aurora Consulting. They spoke to the research that exists in the field and what governance looks like in practice in nonprofit organizations.

Stone and Classen kicked off the discussion by talking about board diversity and representation. In both the literature and in practice, they noted the lack of representative diversity on nonprofit boards, but noted that representativeness does not necessarily equal diversity. The movement towards inclusion in the nonprofit field also needs to be reflected on nonprofit boards. Diversity should influence a board’s behavior, decisions, and practices. If not, nonprofit boards often replicate the power structures and inequities in society that nonprofit organizations are trying to dismantle.

At this point, the conversation turned to the relevancy of boards. Beyond what is legally required, why do we need nonprofit boards? What link is there between board effectiveness and nonprofit effectiveness? The research is inconclusive as to whether nonprofits are effective because they have good boards or whether effective nonprofits happen to have good boards. And what does a good board look like anyway?

Both Stone and Classen cautioned against looking for solutions in a single model of governance. Boards function differently based on organization size, type, stage, geography. Context is important when it comes to governance. They did suggest that organizations should consider separating governance from the work of the board. There are several governance functions that a nonprofit needs to perform, and they are not all done by the board exclusively. Boards should look at the distinction between their role in implementing and oversight of the governance for their organization.

This was just the first of several exciting discussions the PNLC looks forward to hosting through Theory to Practice. Join us on March 30th for a discussion on Nonprofit Job Seeking "Nonprofit Jobseeking" and April 21st for "Foundations: what's it really like?"

By: Stephanie Jacobs

Stephanie Jacobs is deputy director of the Public and Nonprofit Leadership Center (PNLC), a community that creates and nurtures excellence in public affairs management and leadership. Prior to joining the PNLC, Stephanie was Program Director at the Nonprofits Assistance Fund. Previously, she was director of member services at the Minnesota Council on Foundations and consulting associate with Fieldstone Alliance. Stephanie is a graduate of St. Olaf College and holds a master's degree in public policy from the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. She participated in the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits Leadership Institute and is an active volunteer in the Minnesota nonprofit community.

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