Monday, March 21, 2011

Words Make Worlds - Part 3 - Governance vs Stewardship

(Last August, I became deeply inspired by work coming from David Cooperrider and Lindsey N. Godwin at Case Western - Positive Organization Development: Innovation-inspired Change in an Economy and Ecology of Strengths. This paper is a MUST READ for anyone interested in innovation in our association community.  In it, they use the phrase "words make worlds." We often attempt to think innovatively while not recognizing the common terminology we use can work to block us in.  This series of posts will break from my normal format and is dedicated to asking a single question. How can we change our language and think differently about the work we do?)


This series is taking a look at the common terminology we use to refer to different components of associations and brainstorming on ways to change our language to open up new avenues for action. The term “governance” is deeply embedded in any discussion about the inner workings of associations. This post will challenge our notions about “governance” and see if there are alternative terms we can use to describe its function.

Before we can begin, we need to develop a sophisticated understanding of what governance is. At the core, governance is the decision making structure within the organization. These decisions are reflected in the policies we implement and enforce. According to Amos H. Hawley in Human Ecology: A Theoretical Essay, ecological social systems develop policy along a change continuum. All policy is designed to facilitate the following four conditions: “to preserve the status quo by excluding change, to reverse a change in process, to accommodate a change underway or to produce a desirable change.”

Recognizing the underlying function of policy -- to start, modify, reverse or prevent change -- will give you an important tool to use to evaluate the decision making structures and policies within your association. By identifying where policies fall on the change continuum, you will develop a clearer understanding of the culture in your association and its actual tolerance level for innovation. You will begin to recognize those policies which were ostensibly written to facilitate change and yet include operational barriers and language undermining the change the policy purports to seek.

Many times, associations look to policy to reinforce control. This is a natural outcome of using the word "governance" to describe our decision making structure.  “To govern” has a hierarchical connotative meaning built into it that we instinctively recognize. As a consequence the board, other groups of volunteers and staff may become embroiled in turf battles using policy as the weapon of choice.

Policy is also often used as a way to marginalize the "troublemakers." In some cases, making policy in response to the actions of the singular individual is necessary. However, reflexively using policy to prevent dissent or maximize control is a dangerous practice. A democratic citizenry may buckle under for a while, but will not stay silent forever.

There has been an unmistakable push in recent years to overlay our volunteer structure with a more corporate model for decision making processes. We frequently use terminology such as “stakeholders” or "customers.” Some associations have taken advantage of this and have manipulated governance structure and policy and ultimately ended up in ivory towers from which proclamations ensue and wild guesses are made as to "what the members want" (subtext: will buy). Unfortunately, democratic social systems don't work that way. The end result is a litany of complaints the most frequent being, “our members don't understand what we do for them." Perhaps it isn’t really a matter of "finding a better marketing message,” but rather of investigating what the members should be doing for themselves.

Corporate terminology reduces the nature of the member to “customer” and serves to create a "lever/pellet" transactional relationship between your citizens and your association. This also feeds into the notion that "governance" is really about controlling the product that is produced and less about social justice and change. In practice, this two-dimensional view undermines the three-dimensional nature of a fully engaged citizenry. Our collective mission is to provide opportunities for open, engaged citizens to take action on all levels. “Governance” rooted in “servicing needs” does not easily lend itself to the idea of an open system.

Another common corporate tactic is to “streamline governance” by shrinking the board to a minimal few.  It is tempting to consider elimination of board/volunteer positions as a way to take a short-cut to a functional policy making system. Beware of the potential deficit mentality associated with such suggestions.   These moves can seem less like democracy and more like dictatorship. One size does not necessarily fit all.  Some large boards are highly effective and engaged, use cost-effective measures and represent large and growing segments of their membership. Small boards can also be obstinate and uncommunicative with ugly politics and continual intrigue. The most important factor in judging effectiveness is typically not size, but whether the boards operate with a powerfully positive vision. In certain situations, I have recommended either increasing or decreasing the size of the board and/or volunteer groups within an association. However, those recommendations did not start with an arbitrary number in mind, but rather the needs of the membership, the estimated workload and the desires of those who choose to serve.

I believe challenges with “governance” cannot be met by using policy as a tool to enforce our will or by simply "eliminating the problems" by reducing opportunities for volunteers to serve. Maybe one way we can change our situation for the better is to move away from the power politics of "governance" and move toward a more civilized form of oversight, perhaps a term like "stewardship" instead.

A "governor" operates from a position of power, the "steward" serves the others who own the house. What a great metaphor to use to describe how we take care of our members interests. That's what your boardroom can be - the people's house. They elected you. They entrust you with the responsibility to use their money well, listen to their concerns, represent their interests with integrity and resist the influence from corporate sponsors who may attempt to buy their way into your decision making process.

We see a future in which we change our terminology from “governance” to “stewardship.” As stewards of an association the board and volunteer leaders embrace those duties assigned to them by law, demonstrate careful oversight of the finances, and focus on removing barriers to allow change and innovation to flourish within the citizenry. Stewards are caretakers and actively solicit input from the entire community and treat them as cherished pieces of the whole.

Stewards, (both volunteers and staff), work hand in hand and generate only those activities that advance the great vision of the organization. Stewards protect and provide the comfort of rituals, ceremony and the transmission of customs and culture in a transparent manner. What a different role than the body that “approves” committee work-plans and “runs” the association.

If you changed your terminology from "governance" to "stewardship" what changes might happen in your association? Do you see additional opportunities to change the way you interact with each other in matters of policy as you pursue a meaningful mission and vision? Does it give you more freedom to delegate and allow members to create additional realities?

In the next post, we will take a look at alternatives to the word "strategy."

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