A couple of years ago, I had the great pleasure of attending John and Miriam Carver’s seminar on ‘Policy Governance’. I figured it would not be too many more years before Dr. Carver retired and I wanted very much to hear him in person so I booked a ticket and registered for the course. He and Miriam did not disappoint. If you are not familiar with the Carver Policy Governance model for boards, you have missed the single most comprehensive, systematic approach for governing by a board of directors.
The seminar began brilliantly. For more than an hour, Dr. Carver ran through an extensive list of dysfunctions and challenges faced by boards. As he progressed through his list, every participant was saying to themselves, Yup, seen that one. Ooh, I hate that one. Oh yeah, that one is a serious problem. I wanted to call out, preach on, Brother John. There was not one dysfunction on his lengthy list that was not pandemic to boards in general.
Below is a partial refrain from his list:
Common Board Problems
*Disproportionate amount of attention paid to small items vs large issues;
*The Board takes up discussion of anything that anyone brings up;
*They debate something that has already been decided;
*Board Approvals – this is not their job! Boards are supposed to generate things;
*Boards that allow one member’s strongly held opinion become the Board’s opinion because the rest of the members will not speak up;
*Founding Board member stays on or becomes ED/CEO and Board allows the Founding member to intimidate other members and take over the Board’s thinking;
*Setting Board responsibilities to overlap staff functions – shadow functioning;
*Board not taking control as though control were not its function;
*Allowing one or two members to hold the Board hostage;
*Deadly boring Board meetings;
*Board cannot get its job done due to poor Chair;
*They cannot get their job done due to poor ED/CEO;
*Board members finishing their term feeling they wasted their time.
It was not hard to see why Dr. Carver opened the two day event with this list of complaints. His premise was that if such dysfunctions are so prevalent, then the fault must lie in the very design of the governance structure. It was this revelation that drove him to create what he came to call “Policy Governance.”
The Policy Governance system was designed from the ground up to avoid all these vexations. More importantly however, Policy Governance was built to propel the organization to efficiently achieve the purpose(s) for which the organization was formed in the first place. In today’s nonprofit world, the term ‘board development’ is everywhere. 90% of the time what is meant by this generic expression is fixing the above listed board dysfunctions. This is like applying a bandaid hoping to cure cancer. Most of what passes for “board development” is more evidence that John and Miriam Carver are on the right track.
Policy Governance, when done correctly, avoids almost every board problem you have ever seen and been frustrated by. It allows boards to be about their own work of ensuring the organization accomplishes its “ends.”
If you are not familiar with the Carver Model, I encourage you to read John Carver’s book, Boards That Make a Difference. What John lacks as an author, he more than makes up for as a comprehensive theorist on board governance. At the very least, his method will make you rethink your current board structure.