The Executive as Vortex for Organizational Governance

Photo by ahisgett

Photo by ahisgett

I am hesitant to call it a trend, but for the past 3 years I have been observing something about the role of the executive that I had not seen as clearly before. The executive has become the vortex of governance for nonprofit organizations.

Let me explain myself. I have served and continue to serve on many boards of directors of nonprofit organizations. I believe the board plays a crucial role in a successful nonprofit.

I measure the success of a nonprofit and its board not by how much money was raised, the size of its reserves, the size of its staff, or number of elite community leaders on the board. Instead I measure success by the impact the nonprofit has in a community – how they are making positive changes in peoples lives. I don’t think many would disagree with me.

But when it comes to the actual work of the board, as a board member and a consultant, I often see boards providing strong functional leadership (oversight of organizational resources and activities) rather than strategic leadership. While this kind of functional leadership, or oversight is necessary, I would argue it is only a part of governance.

David Renz, a wonderful scholar and prolific writer on topics about nonprofit governance for practitioners and scholars, defines governance this way:

Governance is the process of providing strategic leadership to a nonprofit organization. It entails the functions of setting direction, making policy and strategy decisions, overseeing and monitoring organizational performance, and ensuring overall accountability. Nonprofit governance is a political and organizational process involving multiple functions and engaging multiple stakeholders.

Renz, D. O. Nonprofit Governance and the Work of the Board. 2007

So back to this executive as vortex idea. A vortex, in fluid dynamics, is the swirling of liquid around an imaginary axis. We most commonly see it when water is draining from a sink or tub near the end of the emptying process. Hurricanes are another kind of vortex, as we see the winds swirling about the eye of the storm. Ultimately vortices are powerful forces that create and reflect movement and do so in a comprehensive way. In a nonprofit, I’m seeing the executive act as the axis in the governance vortex. A strong executive can be the eye of the hurricane; striving to be that calm and focused leader amidst all that is swirling around them.

So using that swirling imagery, let’s explore more about why I see the executives as the vortex of nonprofit organizational governance. Let’s look at some of the significant roles that executive play:

  • Managing the staff and board members
  • Providing organizational leadership
  • Holding, amplifying and defining the organizational vision
  • Influencing, and at times determining, the organizational strategic directions
  • Focusing simultaneously on the internal and external organizational environments
  • Developing and maintaining relationships with all key organizational stakeholders
  • Serving as the primary organizational communicator
  • Primary resource generator and distributor
  • Ensuring that the organizational services and programs are aligned, cohesive and advancing the mission of the organization

In playing all these roles, the executive is the only one who can serve as this vortex.

So why do I think this vortex idea important? It is all about leadership and where organizational leadership originates.

Here are some of the implications:

  • The executive is the only one who holds all the multiple organizational tensions in one place – thus an executive must be able to understand, lead and manage all the organizational complexities.
  • The executive provides the vision and is accountable for the day-to-day operations of the organization – thus the executive must be able to manage the detailed intricacies of the organization as well as provide conceptual thinking and be future focused.
  • The executive is the operational manager and leader as well as the organizational manager and leader – thus the executive needs to maintain at least to two foci internally and externally. The executive is thinking constantly about what the organization needs, what the external opportunities are, and what changes might affect the organization.
  • The executive is primarily responsible for generating resources, maintaining resources and expending resources – thus whenever resources are insufficient or misaligned the executive is responsible for the generation of new resources in a resource scarce environment or making the difficult decision to reduce expending resources.

If we wish to encourage the board to provide greater governance with the executive, we need to think about the following:

  • How can we ensure the board has the depth of knowledge and skills to be able to provide strategic leadership?
  • Do the current governance models that encourage boards to set policy and staff to implement them encourage board governance?
  • When our boards are comprised of over-extended community leaders, do we short-change the organization by not having people who have the time and thought space to provide leadership?
  • Is the executive bringing the critical questions to the board for discussion or are they typically informing the board of an almost formed decision that they wish to be approved by the board?
  • If the board provides greater governance, how does that affect the role of the executive?

As you look at your organization and how the board and executive act and interact, look to see if your executive is the vortex for governance. Does that work well for the organization? If not, should the executive be in this role?

So, what do you think?

o   Do we want our executives in this role?

o   As an executive, do you wish to be in this role? How do you see yourself working with the board to govern the organization?

o   Is the board meeting all of its fiduciary duties if this is occurring?

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