Governance for boards of small organizations: Part 1

Small government boards share unique governance considerations with boards of small nonprofits.

In my experiences over the more than 15 years I have been working with local governments as part of the Government and Public Policy program at Michigan State University Extension, I have observed that many differences exist between governing boards of large and small units of government. A key difference is in the type of governance practices used by these boards. In my review of governance models and best practice recommendations for boards of directors, I came across the work of Paul Bonfanti. Bonfanti currently serves as the Director of Policy and Planning Analysis for Villanova University, and has researched best practices and board-staff relationships in small nonprofits.

Bonfanti argues that differences between organizations necessitate the use of different governance approaches, and that this is especially true for the boards of small organizations. In this series of articles, we will examine one of Bonfanti’s papers about small nonprofits, and discuss how to apply his research to local government boards.

Bonfanti’s research included review of literature from “both the academic and mass market sectors”, a national survey of 150 small nonprofit leaders, and interviews with 25 executive directors. He writes in the executive summary of his paper Adapting Existing Best Practices Models to Small Nonprofits, “The research endeavored to understand the uniqueness of small nonprofits and to synthesize their experiences with existing best practices models into new best practices.”

There are ten key differences between small and large nonprofits that Bonfanti identifies. Let’s look at each of them, and explore whether they are typically observed in government boards, and also why they are important.

The first difference is time pressure. Small organizations have smaller budgets and smaller staffs. The same is true of small governments. All involved tend to be generalists, so more time is spent learning new things and balancing multiple demands on time. Bonfanti points out that this often leads to more dependence on volunteers, and in the case of many small governments, this often means the board does double duty volunteering to get things done. Many board members, in governments and nonprofits, come to the role with experience as managers or business owners, so this “roll up your sleeves” approach seems perfectly normal. There exists, then, a great temptation to engage in the active day-to-day work of the organization. In both nonprofits and governments, board members need to be careful to spend adequate time truly functioning at the board level, looking at the big picture, providing leadership, establishing policy and engaging with constituents. Boards with professional staff also need to clearly define the roles of board and staff to ensure effective operation and minimize conflict. Another paper by Bonfanti, Board-Staff Relationships in Small Nonprofits, addresses this in greater detail.

Governance for boards of small organization: Parts two and three will continue the review of the differences between boards of large and small organizations.

Other articles in this series:

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