How to step away from managing everything and step up to governing

By Adele Stowe-Lindner, general manager, Institute of Community Directors Australia

It may seem counterintuitive, but many community leaders wanting to get more done need to start doing less.

Adele Stowe-Lindner

I’m talking about the board members who expend too much of their available effort doing the essential volunteer tasks their organisations need doing, and not enough effort in governing.

This can happen when an organisation has evolved beyond its original scope, but the board members have not adapted to the new circumstances.

What might need to happen is a shift in identity from “board of management” to “board of governance”.

You’re probably familiar with the former. That’s where a management-focused board will decide on a strategy and implement it. In many cases, board members either volunteer to do “the stuff” or feel compelled to do “the stuff” that needs doing.

This can range from setting out the soccer goals, purchasing meat for the sausage sizzle, or tidying up the hall, to designing the flyers to encourage people to attend.

Those same board members are probably sorting logistics for the fundraising event and planning and coordinating the children’s holiday fun session. Sound familiar?

It’s time to step up – here’s how

When board members spend their time doing things, they cannot be:

  • thinking strategically
  • focusing on the sustainability and growth of the organisation
  • recognising new options for the organisation
  • considering fresh aspirations
  • understanding the competition.

As the old management adage goes: “When you’re on the dance floor, you can’t see the view from the balcony.”

To develop your board of governance, consider the fact that management-type roles could be taken on by other volunteers and – where you have the resources – paid staff.

At the Institute of Community Directors Australia, we understand that this is easier said than done, which is why we’ve produced a huge array of free and affordable resources and training to help make that change possible.

The first step is to understand what’s holding you back. Here are some of the most common barriers to making the switch from managing to governing – and some resources to help you to overcome them.

Delegate chat 202205 CIC5 009
Community leaders need to take in the bigger picture. Picture: Communities in Control 2022/Penny Stephens

You lack volunteers or staff

This is one of the biggest issues facing the sector, and you’re not alone. But that’s no reason not to tackle the problem at the source. We’ve produced a help sheet that addresses how to strategically recruit and deploy more volunteers. Of course, this means you’ll have to “put down the gardening gloves”, stop doing all the weeding yourself, and tackle volunteer development instead.

Volunteers: How to build your support base

Your culture is stuck

Another issue that can hold an organisation back from good governance is the difficulty of changing the way you do things, particularly where you have long-serving members who tell you, “That’s the way we’ve always done things”. That attitude comes at a cost, and it’s often measured in lost opportunities.

We’ve written a help sheet on that very thing, with the opening paragraph: “How often do you hear the phrase ‘It’s the way we’ve always done things here’ at your organisation?”

Old-fashioned practices that NFPs should bin, plus five resources for revitalising your organisation

Why being a perfect chair is for losers: four ways to spread the load

Your organisation lacks diversity and new blood

Increasingly, organisations are realising that their boards lack diversity and that this can hinder progress.

How often has your board bemoaned that you would like a fresh generation or a fresh group of people to help carry the load, yet you can’t seem to find those very people?

That’s the kind of thing we think about a lot at ICDA.

And even though we’ve written books on the subject, such as Recruiting for Your Not-for-Profit, we continue to explore new ways to address the issue.

Board diversity, as the term suggests, implies a board composed of people of diverse ages, cultures, genders and other characteristics, and different ways of seeing the world.

Seeing the world through a different lens highlights the imperative of making accommodations for people who are different from you, such as by scheduling meetings to suit full-time workers or people with young families, or finding a meeting venue that’s accessible to wheelchair users. The advent of video meetings allows you to seek board members from any corner of the globe.

Figuratively “flinging open the doors” will make it easier to inject new skills, new energy and new insights into your board, and pave the way for a decent succession plan.

Board succession: Finding new board members

Help sheets: More about board diversity

A good board isn’t static but can adapt in the interests of the organisation. This can mean stepping away from day-to-day volunteer tasks and stepping up to better governance. Strategic guidance, along with a growing staff and volunteer base, might be just what your NFP really needs now.