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Help Sheet

Governance models for community groups

The governance of your organisation should reflect the kind of organisation you are. Deciding what kind of a community group you are comes first. Only after that do you look around for a model that fits you.

Deciding on a model involves working out who's going to run the place, how they're to be chosen, and how they're to be organised. You'll have to establish a policy that sets out the jobs you expect the Board to do, the goals of the operating system, and the considerations you're going to take into account when looking for board members.

Deciding on a model of governance doesn't stop when you've finished writing out your constitution, either. Most constitutions are going to look much the same, because they're restrained by the legislation under which you're going to operate - the Associations Acts in the various states, for example, and their Model Rules. Despite all having much the same kind of formal constitution, though, different organisations govern themselves in sharply different ways.

Because of this, it's necessary to have a written policy on what the Board's functions are. For other perspectives, see Our Community's other helpsheets on the Role of the Board.

What kind of group are you? What's an appropriate governance model?

Kitchen Table

Small start-up, no paid staff, everybody pitches in

Board Management Model

Individually or in committees, Board members take on all governance, management and operational tasks including strategic planning, bookkeeping, fundraising, newsletter production, and program planning and implementation.
Board members are chosen for their willingness to work.
Board meetings are working bees.

But the danger with this approach is that the Board will continue trying to run things at the micro level even after the organisation has grown and hired staff and set up its own administrative structures, leading to conflict and confusion between paid and unpaid workers.

Follow the Leader

Smallish organisation built around one person (often the founder) as CEO or president.

Advisory Board Model

This model emphasises the helping and supportive role of the Board. The Board's role is primarily that of helper/advisor.
Board members are recruited because they are trusted as advisors by the CEO, or because they have a professional skill that the organisation needs but doesn't want to pay for; or because they are likely to be helpful in establishing the credibility of the organisation for fundraising and public relations purposes.
Board meetings tend to be informal and task-focused, with the agenda developed by the CEO.

But the problem with this approach is that the law says that it's the Board, not the CEO, which is responsible for the organisation, and a Board that isn't willing to supervise (and overrule) its CEO where necessary is taking risks with its accountability.

Cash Cow

Larger organisations with routine administration and few debates about direction, that have a clear job to do and just want to get on with it

Patron Model

The Board in the Patron Model has even less influence over the organisation than in the Advisory Board model. The Patron Board serves primarily as a figurehead for fundraising purposes. Such a Board is particularly good for capital campaigns and to establish your financial credibility.
Board members are wealthy and influential individuals with a commitment to the mission of the organisation.
Board meetings are held infrequently, as the real work is done outside Board meetings.

But this kind of Board is not terribly helpful if you actually have real governance tasks to do such as vision development, organisational planning, or program monitoring.

Representative democracy

The organisation is there to service or support its members, and the Board should as far as possible follow the view of the members on any particular issue; when they change their minds, the group changes direction.
If your membership encompasses the entire community, the organisation is therefore community-run.

Membership model

The Board is seen as a condensed version of the organisation, and its job is to deliver what the majority of members want.
Board members are chosen for their opinions as well as their ability.
Board meetings involve frequent votes to see which opinion predominates.

But there can be problems relating Board priorities to administrative structures and systems.

The Collective

Some organisations try to avoid hierarchical structures through "peer management" or "collective management". In this model, all responsibility is shared and there is no Chief Executive Officer. Decision-making is normally by consensus and no individual has power over another.

The Cooperative model

The organisation strives to fit the Board into its organisational philosophy by creating a single managing/governing body composed of official Board members, staff members, volunteers, and sometimes interested members of your community. If all goes well, the organisation benefits from the direct involvement of front-line workers in decision-making and the camaraderie from the interaction of Board and staff.
Board members need a shared sense of purpose, an exceptional level of commitment by all group members, a willingness to accept personal responsibility for the work of others, and an ability to compromise (however, as cooperatives often arise out of strong ideological or philosophical commitments, compromising may be easier said than done).
Board meetings work by exhaustive debate leading (sometimes) to consensus.

But the wide and shifting membership can make it difficult to pursue a consistent direction. Accountability is also often a problem in the absence of structure.

The governance models listed above are descriptions of actual organisations and how they operate. The descriptions below are of ideal organisations as designed by different theorists, and may therefore sound more attractive. The more impressive the tasks allotted to the Board, however, the more difficult it is to achieve them, and in designing your governance you should carefully consider your available resources.

What kind of group are you? What's an appropriate governance model?

Board managers

The Board has functions, not constituencies, and has real, not nominal, direction of the organisation. The Board is at the top of a managerial hierarchy.

Management Team Model / Partnership Model

A Management Team model organises committees and activities along functional lines. The structure of the Board and its committees usually mirrors the structure of the organisation's administration. Just as there are staff responsible for human resources, fundraising, finance, planning, and programs, the Board creates committees with responsibility for these areas.
Boards have a high degree of involvement in operational and administrative activities. In organisations with professional management this normally takes the form of highly directive supervision of the CEO and staff at all levels of the organisation. Structurally, there may be many committees and sub-committees. Decision-making extends to working with the administration on details about programs, services, and administrative practices.
Board members are chosen by the existing Board for their fit to the organisation's needs for specific skills and abilities. This model emphasises the systematic selection, induction and training of Board members. The goal is to put in place a Board that works effectively as a team.
It's common for the CEO to sit on the Board ex officio or at least to be present to serve as Board liaison.
Board meetings deal both with policy and with aspects of administration.

But this can lead to the Board frittering its time away on day-to-day matters that are properly the responsibility of the staff

Carver Board

The originator and most influential proponent of the Policy Board Model is John Carver, whose book, Boards that Make a Difference has had a great effect on thousands of not-for-profit organisations. Boards operating under the Policy Board Model are characterised by a high level of trust and confidence in the CEO. In the Policy Governance Model the CEO is the only employee of the Board, and all other staff are employees of the CEO.

Policy Board Model

The Board takes the policy decisions that will add value to the organisation.
The tasks of the Board are to establish the guiding principles and policies for the organisation, to delegate responsibility and authority to the CEO (who is then responsible for enacting these principles and policies), to monitor compliance with those guiding principles and policies, and to ensure that the CEO (and through the CEO the staff) is held accountable for their performance.
The Board evaluates the CEO's performance regularly and thoroughly.

But the partnership model needs ideal Board members to function properly, members who know how the organisation works and possess exceptional understanding of its strengths and weaknesses. Board members of this calibre are difficult to find. The time demands on Board members are also high, as they need both to be briefed on internal matters and to connect with external stakeholders.



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