January 26, 2017

Create a conducive environment for others to thrive

Governing CSOs in the digital age of empowered stakeholders requires special skills. As a Board member you still set strategy; ensure effective structures; monitor progress; and manage risk. But decisions are no longer just based on secluded Board discussions. To govern well, you have to be continuously in touch with staff, people, donors and partners. Your key competence is to create a compelling vision and strategy; foster leadership and enabling structures for the shared cause; and manage risk in a way that allows for ownership and speed.

1. Create a compelling vision and distribute ownership

For people to take a leadership role in the co-creation of results, you need to help create a very compelling vision and ensure that it is well understood and shared across the organisation and amongst your network of partners. Good governance today is dependent on your ability to create an environment that is convincing and motivating for others to take the lead in realising a shared vision. Greenpeace wants to facilitate “a billion acts of courage to save the planet” and Amnesty International plans to ‘’build the strongest possible global movement of 25 million people to take action for human rights every year.’’ The vision is short, compelling and provides a clear direction of travel

2. Put impact before organisational growth

As a Board member you clearly have a responsibility to preserve the organisation’s healthiness and to secure impact. Sometimes, there is a tension here. Growing your social media followers, resources or reputation can be very useful in achieving your purpose. But sustained changes normally come from more complex and long term interplays. 350.org identified support to local actors who share their cause as a key strategic priority to achieve long term impact. The founder of The Integrate Movement, working on youth mental health issues in the UK, limited his organisation’s life span from the outset to 10 years to avoid organisation-centric focus!

3. Navigate risk nimbly to allow for agility and ownership

In the digital age risks materialise more frequently; evolve faster; and have potentially multiplier effects. Without taking risks, however your impact potential is extremely limited. To meaningfully engage others, you have to let go of some control. The Board should identify the greatest strategic risks for the coming 3-5 years. Those must be addressed not merely through technology, but as an integral part of your strategy, values and standards. Beyond that – set much else free. McKinsey & Company put together an interesting report on pragmatic risk management. Transparency International choose a higher risk appetite in their Unmask the Corrupt campaign to broaden ownership for the anti-corruption discourse. But they drew a non-negotiable red line around people’s safety. When determining the appropriate risk appetite you may also want to look at Fail Forward or the Risk Sandbox – a tool to explore how to foster innovation and facilitate risk-taking to scale impact.

4. Build a digitally attuned governance culture

Staff, supporters, donors, partners – all have become more empowered stakeholders, demanding greater transparency and participation in governance decisions. This is a great opportunity to leverage impact. But it needs a digitally attuned culture of governance. Board meetings of Wikimedia Serbia for instance are digitally recorded, live-streamed and feedback of communities is actively invited. Plan USA has appointed a Youth Advisory Board which frequently participates in the Board of Directors’ discussions – among others to attune them to the social media culture.

5. Know what people and partners think!

Regularly ask partners, staff or donors to rate you from 1-5 on the questions below. Add one open question for qualitative feedback: for e.g. how can we improve risk management to help you thrive?

  1. Do you know our vision? How well does our vision resonate with you?
  2. Do we send clear signals that impact comes before growing the organisation?
  3. Do you perceive our governance culture as static & restrictive or dynamic & engaging?