A key driver of operational resilience and sustainability is the capability of civil society organisations (CSOs) to establish and cultivate effective boards. Board governance is an important ingredient to securing the evolution, scale and impact of a CSO. A colleague and I recently had an engaging conversation about the various stages of board development and the potential pathways to diagnose the health of a CSO board. This conversation centred on the patterns of evolution of CSO boards and whether there was a sequential transition from one phase to another. This conversation led to the development of this blog piece, which focuses on the life cycle of CSO boards within the African context based on our engagement and thought leadership in the sector.
Let’s go back to the Basics! What is a Board?
A Board is the policy making body of an organisation and is found at the top of the organisational structure. It usually consists of elected and or co-opted individuals. In most CSOs, members of the Board are not salaried but perform voluntary service. In some cases they are given allowances to meet certain logistical costs.
Every CSO should operate a functional Board, which exercises leadership, enterprise, integrity and judgment in directing the organisation to achieve impact and to act in the best interests of the organisation's values and constituencies.
Most literature on organisational governance recognises the four basic duties of a Board to be loyalty, care and skill, knowledge, and attention. Board functions include: making decisions on policies and strategies of the organisation, representing the organisation, accountability for the organisation, overseeing the organisation's work, appointing the executive director and agreeing on standards, resource mobilisation, conflict and tension management and being the custodian of the organisation.
Globally, there are three different and quite distinct types of CSO boards that develop as these organisations grow and change. They can be characterised as (1) The Founding Board, (2) The Governing Board, and (3) The Resourcing Board. Often the trend has been that CSO boards evolve from founding to resourcing boards but this evolution does not happen in all cases.
The Founding Board
Some start-up CSOs or organisations at their nascent stages operate founding boards. This means that the organisation is the board. There is no distinction between governance and management. This situation is quite understandable taking into cognisance the resource challenges associated with starting a CSO and in some instances the lack of organisational governance experience and skills.
Usually, members of such boards are the promoters/founders of the organisation. The board is composed of individuals with close ties to the mission of the CSO. Therefore, there is a strong sense of ownership and power is shared. Consensus leadership is practiced and there is reluctance to release power to first staff members. The board processes and procedures are largely informal based on collective decision-making and sometimes there is “rubber stamping”. The members are extremely passionate about the mission and do not prioritise policy and administration.
A key challenge founding boards face is their penchant for not trusting and sharing power with the first staff members. In some cases, such frictions lead to some founding members choosing to leave or, staff may suffer the consequence and be treated poorly or, in worst cases, be fired.
It is recommended that such boards shift to a more business-inclined operation model. This means that the board and staff must redefine their roles. The board must begin to shift to a policy-making role while staff members focus on day-to-day management. The organisation must be also encouraged to open to new people, define clear job descriptions and invest in developing systems and structures for itself.
The Governing Board
This is the next stage of evolution of most CSO Boards. CSOs that have been operating for about four to ten years usually have governing boards. This is characterised by a clear distinction between governance responsibilities and management roles. Therefore, there is a balance of power between staff and the board. There is a tangible assumption of responsibility for the health and operational efficiency and effectiveness of the organisation.
To support this growth, there is the presence of formalised decision-making processes and an increased reliance on staff recommendations. The required focus is laid on policy, planning, and oversight responsibilities. There is also a significant investment in building management systems and structures.
Governing boards begin to embrace fundraising responsibilities. Board members are also more open to creating committees and are happy to delegate more work to these committees. An interesting development is the pursuit of a functional balance between board members’ passion for the mission and the focus on building internal capacity. Board recruitment is also more strategic to ensure that the right configurations of members are selected based on a wide array of skills including management, finance and resource mobilisation, and subject matter proficiency, legal acumen, among others.
A key frustration that organisations with governing boards experience is the difficulty of transitioning from an informal board to a more dynamic and formal structure. The rate of change of such boards into formal and “professionalised” entities can be rather slow.
It is recommended that when such boards are able to support their organisations to have strong and robust governance systems and structures, they should deliberately pursue a resource mobilisation/ fundraising agenda.
The Resourcing Board
The transition from governing to a resourcing board often leads to a struggle between the board and staff as they adjust to their new roles driven by a heavy focus on institutional resource mobilisation. Organisations at this stage focus on recruiting a larger board that has the capacity to attract and access a significant number of strategic funders, donors, and influential partners. Therefore, the organisation focuses on recruiting board members of high visibility with “resourcing” connections. CSOs that have been operating for about 10 to 30 years usually operate resourcing boards. Serving on such boards is considered prestigious.
Planning and budgeting are done by staff and approved by the Board. There is significant investment in operational planning and evaluation and a strong commitment to resource mobilisation. On such boards, a designated committee often functions as a governing board. Therefore, board oversight responsibilities are often delegated to committees.
A key success factor of a resourcing board would be its ability to delegate governance of the institution to a designated board committee to facilitate the transition into an institutional resource mobilisation board.
The stages of board development discussed in this blog piece often occur within the life cycle of CSOs but not in all instances. In certain situations, they may be exceptions. Some founding boards already have the capacity to raise funds and may experience a different growth trajectory by transitioning to a resourcing board without assuming all the attributes of a governing board.
In addition, it is not a forgone conclusion that boards of all CSOs need to experience the resourcing stage. Some sector practitioners argue that the progression to resourcing boards should not be perceived as inevitable. In Africa, this perception of inevitability is not supported by public interest, cause-oriented organisations that resist the idea of becoming resource driven institutions. These organisations often equate the resourcing stage with unhealthy bureaucracy, a focus on hierarchy and a growing culture of unresponsive and inflexible practices.
It is within this context, now more than ever, that leaders of CSOs in Africa need to be challenged to understand the role and responsibilities of their boards and the changes that need to be made as their organisation grows.