Governance with heart – the shadow side

darth vader

Everything, everyone, has their shadow side, I reckon.  Like the Dark Side of The Force, for instance.  Or me when it’s past my bedtime.

I’m just following on from the TEDx talk I did recently:

discussing the concept of “governance with heart” – tapping into the passion inherent in working for a not-for-profit organisation, to make us more effective custodians of the NFP’s essence, and to serve better all those who have a stake in that organisation.

I said in the talk that the not-for-profit sector is fuelled by passion.  Passion is essential, when you aren’t getting paid for what you do; or if you are getting paid, when it’s substantially less than what you would be getting in the big bad corporate world.

Passion, though, has its shadow side.  Here are three areas where I have seen good governance stumble in NFPs, where the heart in governance with heart might have been slightly misplaced.

1.  Over-identification with the cause.  I mentioned in the talk one of the potential consequences of fuelling an organisation with passion – the danger of people’s identity being determined by their work for a particular cause.  Over-identification with the cause can result in not knowing when, or how, to let go – like the example I quoted of someone having been on a board for 38 years, and being clearly well past their use-by date.  It can also result in loss of perspective,  or of the ability to give a reality check when needed.

Another example of over-identification is what we sometimes call in the trade “founder syndrome”, where an inspirational and dedicated person has established a charity, taken it through the start-up phase, and got it firing and poised for real growth.

That growth usually can’t happen without the founder letting go of some control, or allowing other people with the right skills to become involved in the growth phase.  I have seen founder syndrome scupper some major funding arrangements on at least two occasions – one recently where the two primary investors walked away from supporting a board of founders which would not accept that changes in their governance style and substance were needed.

2.  What I call “shiny syndrome” – grabbing on to new stuff, when it’s hard enough just to keep on doing the core business.  The issue here is that there is just so much need out there, begging to be addressed.  For compassionate and caring people it’s hard not to take on more projects, especially when funding might be dangled before you.

Shiny syndrome can detract from the delivery of your agreed current strategic goals, and will probably ensure that you don’t have the resources to do the shiny new stuff properly either.  Testing it against your “where”, your destination, is usually an effective way to guard against counter-productive new stuff.

3.  Not keeping your distance.  Under-resourced NFPs will grab any help they can get, but if you are involved in governing, you need to be clear about staying out of management’s hair, and carrying out the governing, not doing the doing.

It’s fine to go and get your hands dirty helping out with delivery, but when you’re doing it remember what hat you have on, and it’s not your director hat.  It’s your volunteer hat or your staff hat, and when you are wearing it you are reporting to the CEO, or someone else in management, not to the board.

Don’t come in with a confusing view of having some special status because in another capacity you may be a director – in that circumstance you are just another volunteer.

So beware of the shadow side – like Obi-Wan says: “Bring balance to the Force, not leave it in darkness.”

1 Response to “Governance with heart – the shadow side”

  1. 1 Marsha October 3, 2013 at 9:56 am

    I enjoyed hearing your Ted talk, where you jumped from your experience as a director of Varuna The Writers House to discuss the framework any board can establish. By having a focus, the board can avoide getting caught up in the ‘shiny syndrome’ or overstepping the boundaries between governance and management. I also liked that you identified the various stakeholders directors need to consider. In the arts, some people ignore the fact that govt money is not a magical treasure chest for splurging, but a gift provided by many individuals.

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