Leadership Through Governance

By: Debra Beck, EdD

We recruit our nonprofit board members, in part, for the potential represented in their personal, professional and community connections. We gravitate to their rich expertise and skills. But too often, we confine them to the boardroom and a stifling list of passive roles that do anything but engage them.

If our communities are to reach their full potential, we need to help the community leaders who govern our organizations to reach their full potential.

What’s possible, for us and those we serve, when boards are able to focus on the critically important work of nonprofit governance? Here are a few thoughts that come to mind for me:

• We have ongoing access to the deep expertise and varied talents that individual members bring to the board. We learn from their wisdom, shared freely and in the spirit of expanding our impact. They do so willingly, because they are respected and engaged in ways that are personally and professionally appropriate.

• We stretch our thinking via interaction and debate informed by the wide range of life experiences and perspectives around the boardroom table.

• We welcome – and, indeed, solicit – questions that facilitate that expanded thinking. We know those questions lead to richer, deeper, and more informed decisions as we move toward the compelling vision of the future that drives us.

• That vision, and our specific mission/role in making it happen, are equally rich and high in impact, because our board (which holds ultimate accountability for their definition and advancement) has grounded us in community need while also demanding that we reach beyond what feels possible in the limited moments of today.

• We move closer toward that vision and mission, because our board holds us accountable for programs and performance that advance them. We welcome that accountability, not only to our board but to the community that they represent.

• We engage in critical thinking – and occasionally pointed questioning – as a healthy part of that accountability process. That work begins in the boardroom, where robust and respectful debate around complex topics is the norm.

• We enjoy ever-broadening connections to new groups of stakeholders and supporters – and credibility with those groups – thanks to the personal and professional networks that our board members make accessible to us.

• We extend our impact on public policy changes required to fulfill our mission, because our board members regularly make our case with legislators, city council members, Congressional delegations, and other opinion leaders.

• We unleash on our community – and the world – a committed, passionate group of advocates devoted to us far longer than their board terms.

Now, what will we do to support our boards and help ensure that they are able to focus their gifts of time and expertise on this work?


Debra Beck, EdD, is the co-founder and coordinator of the Snowy Range Nonprofit Institute. She is a founding member of the international Study Group on Governance Relationships and Dynamics. Debra earned a doctorate in adult and post-secondary education from the University of Wyoming in 2009. Her dissertation, titled “The Practice of Generative Governance: A Case Study Exploring Board Learning in Context,” explored the factors that facilitate generative thinking and learning in board meetings. In addition to all this, Debra is a Creating the Future Fellow. Follow her work via the Laramie Board Learning Project here.

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