Policy Goverance Ubiquitous

By Robert J. Ballantyne

If you are reading this you probably have heard of Policy Governance®. If you are a board member, and your organization uses Policy Governance, I hope your board-culture has also taught you the power and simplicity of effective governing. If so, you may have wondered why all organizations are not using Policy Governance. Here is what Sherry Jennings and I have observed and what we plan to do about it.

In the early 90s, when I was President of the Canadian Nature Federation (now called Nature Canada) we studied and implemented Policy Governance as part of a strategy to salvage the CNF from near bankruptcy. We were fortunate to have a supportive staff, a brilliant new CEO, and an engaged and wise board. Our remedies required creative contributions from everyone. A few years later, when my term on that board was over, we had over three quarters of a million dollars in a rainy-day fund and a larger staff than ever. I had served in leadership positions on boards before, but Policy Governance taught me to focus on the ways a board could be both potent and effective. In 1998 I went to study the finer points of Policy Governance from the authors of the model, John and Miriam Carver. I was convinced that this new system for organizing the work of a board was so clever, so thorough, and so useful, that soon it would become as ubiquitous as Robert’s Rules of Order.

Now, over 20 years later, while there are boards using Policy Governance successfully, you would not describe its implementation as “ubiquitous.” Why not? And if it is as valuable — especially for effectively governing a non-profit board — as Sherry and I think it is, what can we do facilitate its becoming ubiquitous?

To be blunt: we think that the slow uptake of Policy Governance is due to the way it is taught.

Here is a prime example — likely you will hear that this is how to implement Policy Governance. “First, you need to study and understand all of the concepts of Policy Governance, then with the help of an expensive consultant write all of your policies, especially focus on the Executive Limitations, but not necessarily the Ends (your mission statement will work as a placeholder until you write your Ends), then ‘flip the switch’ and now you are using Policy Governance.” We think this is often a formula for eventual failure.

For consultants (including Sherry and me) it is wonderful to work with boards, and be a vital part of facilitating the process of visualizing and implementing community-transforming results, benefits, or changes, using the power of a non-profit (social profit) incorporated entity. The problem is that there are only a few social profit boards that can afford a trained consultant. Frankly, social profits are often small, underfunded, and struggling. We know they could benefit from using the tools that Policy Governance provides, but their governing time is so filled with coping with survival and managing the complexities of their organization that learning a new way of managing a board is an impossible distraction.

When we talk about Policy Governance Ubiquitous, we are looking for ways to bring Policy Governance to any size of organization that wants to govern effectively.

As part of this work, we want to be clear about our integrity in using the term Policy Governance. We are convinced that the core concepts of this model of governance are sound, and it is not our intention to compromise them in any way. This is our pledge to you, and to the author of the model, John Carver.

In June 2007, John and Miriam Carver held their first-ever advanced seminar in Policy Governance. It was for a small group, and Sherry and I were in attendance. One of the big takeaways for me was hearing John tell us that his interest is focused on the core concepts and values of Policy Governance. We, consultants, are free to practice Policy Governance any way we want. As a consequence, over the past decade, we have explored a number of techniques and processes that have led us to discover that Policy Governance can be far more approachable, and therefore effective, than previously thought.

In the near future we are planning to run some low-cost courses to explore some of these concepts. Our technique will be to use co-creation with these courses whereby the initial offerings will include intensive hands-on sessions with us participating in order to seek and to capture lots of feedback. When we are convinced that the course is effective, we will automate it and offer it as inexpensively as possible.

Sherry and I have considerable experience as senior staff managing social profits. Our interest is effective organizations, not just better governance. We will be looking at better management, and especially at the interface between the board and management.

As of 2020 AD, very few consultants can make a living by teaching Policy Goverance. The market is too small. In our opinion, part of the problem is that the tiny cadre of knowledgeable consultants are all in competition with each other and too few boards are deciding to use this model. At some point, we think that if Policy Governance Ubiquitous is to happen, we’ll need to work together and share the techniques that we have discovered to be effective. We don’t know how this is going to happen, but it is our intention to do our part to facilitate that process.