Q: What does it mean to govern? 
[Careful – this is a trick question.]
        a.) to supervise
        b.) to manage
        c.) to donate
        d.) to advise

The correct answer, according to the 2004 governance classic, Governance as Leadership, is e.) none of the above. To govern is “to lead.” And yes, leading includes supervision, management, fundraising, and advising, but leading also supersedes them. Let me explain.

It doesn't take long to find board members who are not only confused about the roles they play, but are also dissatisfied with them. Surveys conducted with the boards of nonprofit organizations reveal surprising answers from trustees: though they love serving the organization and find it personally rewarding, they often don’t think they are doing a particularly good job of governance. Why the disconnect?

Some of the literature about governance suggests two basic reasons that boards do not perform well. First, they don’t understand their roles and responsibilities. And second, they don’t like their roles and responsibilities.

A board member’s lack of understanding regarding roles and responsibilities means, in essence, that they aren't sure about their job descriptions. The response to this knowledge gap is simple (in theory if not in practice): provide your board with a more effective board handbook, including clearer job descriptions. Luckily, there are numerous books and articles that cover this ground, and many consultants who can help. In fact, the In Trust Center has a few.

Though clarifying job descriptions is a great place to start, doing so doesn't really address the second problem -- when board members dislike their role. This is actually a question of purpose. Seasoned boards can sometimes drift into enticing but random activities that create little or no value for their organizations. In a fascinating analysis, Governance as Leadership states that “boards are vulnerable to problems of purpose both in their official and their unofficial work.” The authors add: “This diagnosis is more illuminating if one asks not just whether boards are vulnerable to problems of purpose but where.”

So what does it mean to govern as a leader with purpose? According to Governance as Leadership, this question is the primary issue with which boards should be wrestling.

Governance as Leadership is a great resource for boards who want to function at a higher level of excellence and believe that what boards need today is more than performing specific roles or completing tasks. Their organization needs them, as a board, to lead. 

Click here to purchase Governance as Leadership.