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  • Writer's pictureSherry P. Johnson

Simple Governance

I know I was gonna talk more about networks, and that's coming up. This is related, I promise... Let's talk about simple governance. A coaching client brought it to my attention, particularly bubbling up from the small-church governance community. I'm noticing echoes of it moving into nonprofit and community organizations, particularly volunteer-run, volunteer-led organizations--where maybe you have no staff, or just one staff member. And since the pandemic and all that has happened, all the upheaval, all the unpredictability, we're noticing in a lot of these communities that there's a lot of attrition--just as much, if not more, than in the private and public sectors. Well, it turns out that a lot of people are considering simpler governance models, and at the risk of oversimplifying the official model, I'm going to unpack some common patterns for the purpose of creativity and honoring your context.

Let's think about your average, small nonprofit experience: on your board, you typically have working groups or committees that meet regularly, sometimes even requiring committee chairs, agendas, minutes...and Board members may need to serve on 2 or more of these committees while communicating and coordinating only through email threads and jam-packed meetings. Volunteers in these settings are experiencing task and meeting burnout--going through the motions of all the ways that their committees were set up for past needs and expectations from communities or stakeholders. But what if your board kept their regular meetings, canceled all nonessential committee meetings, and met once a month just to work together in a single, synchronous session alongside non-Board volunteers and staff? And what if everybody chose just one thing to work on each month?

Now, I know what you're thinking…What about long-term projects or ongoing needs typically fulfilled by a committee? In this case, an ongoing structure or a long- or medium-term project could be spearheaded by a couple people holding the continuity, but hosting a stream of fresh volunteers each month--who just wanted to see where they could help that month? The rest of the space would be available for people to self-organize into projects that only last one month. For example, let's say there's a communications breakout session, where two people regularly hold down the fort. But maybe just that month, a veteran Board member might join them because they feel like writing an article or contributing to web content or social media in some way--maybe in response to something emerging in the community. Or, let's say the E.D. has been itching to try this new, small-scale development experiment. They could set up a breakout space and get 1-2 people to join them for that short-term project, then move to something else the following month. It might also let us gather to clarify and document a procedural question that's been bugging people, like filesharing or email-threading expectations… How about effectively addressing a crisis in the community, with more hands on deck? These items typically have no place in a traditional committee structure. This governance pattern offers ways that small organizations can cross pollinate and build relationships, strengthen their network, give people agency, and make them feel included and plugged in right away. It also better sets the expectation that yours is a working board; everyone is there to work and to volunteer right alongside non-Board volunteers. It builds awareness of what's really going on in the day-to-day work of an organization. Most importantly, it helps the organization let go of patterns of work that no longer serve, so that we can all acknowledge that our lives are different and that our capacities have changed.

And the best part? Like any emergent, self-organizing structure, you can try it for a short term, then release it if it isn't working. Maybe that's you?

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