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Underperforming Board? Consider a Chief Governance Officer




Optimizing board governance is often a topic of conversation with our clients. As a seasoned recruiter and long-tenured board member myself, I have seen the good, the bad, and the ugly of nonprofit board governance—from boards that function as adjunct staff who are enmeshed in managing the operations of the organization to those who are disconnected from the communities they serve to those who not only meet, but exceed governance expectations. Even with higher performing boards, lack of representation is a reality I see all too often. Despite DEI initiatives and that most organizations are endeavoring to be more diverse and inclusive, over 60% of leaders reported that building a diverse and inclusive board is not prioritized, according to BoardSource’s Leading with Intent: BoardSource Index of Nonprofit Board Practices. These same leaders also noted that their organizations lacked a true commitment to equity or building relationships within the community that help support and inform the organization’s work (separate from fundraising). Board governance is an increasingly complex affair, playing a significant role in enabling an organization to fulfill its mission. How often do volunteer leaders get this part of their service right? In my experience, great governance boards have become the proverbial unicorn.


Productive and effective governance committees should be forward-thinking, aspirational, and dedicated to transformative growth. Instead, I often see governance committees get bogged down in recruitment and the evaluation of their performance becomes an afterthought—if it’s even considered at all. As a revolutionary idea, how about adding a Chief Governance Officer (CGO), also a volunteer, to the roster of your Board of Directors?


A CGO should bring every bit of expertise, courage, and tenacity they have to ensuring the effective delivery of strategic governance. Let’s dig into this a bit more. What would the job description look like for a Chief Governance Officer?


Ensure the board is functioning as intended

When a governance committee fails to correct a board’s substandard performance, or fails to govern itself properly, problems inevitably follow. Even worse, when there is no existing governance function, an appointed CGO can help ensure the board is following its by-laws, which is governance 101. Over time, a board guided by a CGO will continue to improve and serve the organization in the most optimal way.


Ensure the board remains focused on the organization’s mission

When a board loses sight of its mission and fails to meet governance goals, a CGO can encourage and enable the team of volunteers to remain purpose driven. Accordingly, this will keep the organization’s mission at the center of all business dealings, decisions, and strategic planning discussions. By asking hard questions, reinforcing purposeful conversations, and consistently challenging the status quo, the CGO can inherently uplift the organization.


Embrace an inclusive mindset in all board practices and protocols

It’s no secret that diverse boards are more innovative and yield overall superior performance than more homogenous groups. Not only should we all embrace diverse and inclusive teams, but each tactical and strategic step a board takes on this critical agenda item should aim to have an equitable outcome that is top of mind. A CGO can assist in keeping a board focused on these goals.


Assess board performance and establish improvement plans

Boards should review their performance at least every other year and listen to the feedback they receive! Self-assessment can point to problems and challenges in the functionality of the board and allow for swift, action-oriented intervention. And remember, when you ask for feedback, you actually need to listen! A CGO facilitates board self-assessment and feedback and then works purposefully to address needed change.


Building and maintaining high-functioning governing bodies is no easy feat. Recently, shared global challenges have caused external and internal forces to question dated methods of working in every realm of our lives. Remember, this work is not one size fits all! If your board is struggling to hit their stride, perhaps the appointment of a Chief Governance Officer just might be the revolutionary new solution.


Good luck and let us know how you are doing in your work to build a better governance focused board!