When In Trust magazine made its debut in 1989, there weren't a lot of other governance resources available to theological school boards. But what a difference two decades has made. In the wake of the Enron scandal, and spurred on by increased scrutiny of nonprofit organizations on both sides of the Canada–U.S. border, advice about what it means to be an effective board has proliferated. New books on the topic appear almost monthly, augmented by a host of resource-rich Web sites and printed and online newsletters. Seminars, workshops, and training programs focused on nonprofit governance have multiplied.

Despite distinct takes on what constitutes "good" governance, most authors, researchers, and support organizations agree that no one-size-fits-all template dictates how boards should function. Advisors in governance urge boards to shape the way they work to the contours of their specific organizations. Except for John Carver, that is. He is the originator of Policy Governance (a name he has trademarked), which his Web site describes as "the world's most complete theoretical foundation for the board's governance role in business, nonprofit (NGO), and government organizations." The 12 books in the CarverGuide series reiterate that Policy Governance is "powerful in dealing with whatever practical situations arise" and the Web site pronounces it "applicable to the governing body of any enterprise."

The man and the model

John Carver's three-decade quest to transform board governance is the product of his own frustrations with ineffectual practices he used to encounter on the job and in volunteer settings. His is a deeply personal crusade — so much so, in fact, that the words "Carver model" and "Policy Governance" are used interchangeably. Carver preaches Policy Governance with the fervor of an old-time evangelist, calling boards to "an adventure into what strategic board leadership might be."

That quotation is from the introduction to the foundational text of Policy Governance, Carver's Boards That Make a Difference: A New Design for Leadership in Nonprofit and Public Organization, which is now in its third edition. Carver's ideas are expanded in several more books, the CarverGuide series, videos, newsletters, one- and two-day seminars, and weeklong training academies for consultants and organizational leaders. Despite his voluminous output, Carver acknowledges that what he has to say is neither completely new nor unique. In Boards That Make a Difference, Carver describes himself as tying together the piecemeal conventional wisdom about organizational practice into "a model that is as universal as its parts" (page 321). He claims that his contribution to board governance is "an enabling framework of rules that is as simple and short as possible" (page 322).

There is no cheap grace in his gospel of effective governance. Carver demands full commitment to the principles of Policy Governance, and he cautions against false teachers and careless boards who say they are followers of Policy Governance but who have deviated from the tenets of the model. By his own admission, Carver doesn't mince words, and sometimes he is hard on boards. Yet converts to Policy Governance continue to come. Carver estimates that more than 60 percent of nonprofit boards in North America have adopted the Policy Governance model, and the community of boards that have been "Carverized" now extends worldwide.

Benefits of Policy Governance

In an article titled "Policy Governance in a Nutshell," Carver states: "Our missions and our own integrity demand that boards govern rather than either rubber stamp or meddle. Our busy lives demand that time, energy, and wisdom should be well used and that boards and managements should both be optimally empowered in their work."

And In Trust agrees. The boards of theological schools come together infrequently, most only two or three times a year, and their time with the president and other administrators is precious. It seems almost a sin to waste even one minute of the usually jam-packed agendas on issues that do not advance the mission of the school or which fail to encourage the best from each board member. Yet we frequently find ourselves listening to boardroom discussions that, though interesting, have veered far into administrative territory. Or we observe board members arguing at length about issues that would have been settled in minutes had guiding policies been in place. For boards that return time and again to the same issues without resolution, there are valuable lessons to be found in the discipline and clarity of purpose that the Policy Governance model brings to institutional governance.

Policy Governance helpfully locates the work of the board in the realm of ends, and hands the means of getting there over to the president and the president's team. Boards are expected to define the boundaries within which the president should work, and then to trust him or her to "just do it." The board is told to codify in policy statements its processes and anticipated outputs, and then to hold itself accountable for the policies it has set.

Moreover, Carver is right to link the strength of the school with the strength of the board, and he urges board leaders to be vigilant in monitoring and improving the board's health and vitality. He writes, "Being warm, willing to attend meetings, inclined to donate money, and interested in the organizational subject matter do not constitute responsible board membership. These characteristics are desirable, but far from sufficient" (page 189).

Cautions about Policy Governance

In Trust has worked with boards that embrace Policy Governance wholeheartedly and flourish in their leadership as long as there are champions for the model within the membership or in the president's office. But when members trained in Policy Governance are replaced by newcomers who know not Carver, the model breaks apart. The board continues to operate under the banner of Policy Governance, but without the internal coherence and discipline required to be effective.

We have also encountered boards that espouse the principles of Policy Governance but without understanding the full implications of what is required of them. In these places, board members speak proudly about ends and means and the separation of board policies and administrative actions. But when pushed for examples of their policies, they are unable to back up their rhetoric with words on paper.

For more information on governance models, see the following:

A two-page abridgement of Chapter 3 of A Handbook for Seminary Presidents, edited by G. Douglass Lewis and Lovett H. Weems (Eerdmans, 2006, 250 pp., 24). In the complete book chapter, Cooley lays out a vision for theological school governance shared by board, president, and faculty.

  • G. Douglass Lewis, "Rethinking the Board's Central Purposes," In Trust, Autumn 2005, pages 2022. Available at www.intrust.org/Rethinking.

A three-page review of Governance as Leadership: Reframing the Work of Nonprofit Boards, by Richard P. Chait, William P. Ryan, and Barbara E. Taylor (Wiley, 2005, 198 pp., $50). The authors offer a three-part model that includes fiduciary, strategic, and generative governance.

To his credit, Carver is clear that his model requires a board to govern in an organized, planned, and highly disciplined manner. Yet there are enough misuses of Policy Governance among nonprofit organizations to raise questions about Carver's claims of the model's universal applicability. In some instances, In Trust may encourage a board to take a look at Policy Governance, but there are also institutional settings in which we feel the model could lead to serious governance problems.

A third caution about Policy Governance has to do with the concept of shared governance--that central tenet of academic life that recognizes overlapping spheres of authority for the board, the faculty, and the president's office. We have searched the voluminous literature on Policy Governance, but we have not found references to shared governance or an explanation of where faculty fit within the model. (If you are aware of examples of articles or research about Policy Governance in academic settings, please e-mail editors@intrust.org.) This doesn't mean that Policy Governance is necessarily and always at odds with shared governance, but Carver's emphasis on the exclusivity of the board-president relationship and his use of the word "staff" to describe all other persons within the organization may be a problem.

Addressing misconceptions

Since introducing the Board Performance Audit, In Trust has bumped into misconceptions about what Policy Governance has to say about the role of boards in fundraising, constituency relations, and student recruitment. Contrary to what board members have argued, Carver does not rule against board members' involvement in advancing the school. In fact, Carver speaks directly to the misconception that Policy Governance precludes the board's involvement in fundraising, lobbying, or contributing volunteer service (pages 323-324).

It's true that Carver cautions boards against putting advancement activities up front and leaving governance to something the board gets around to if there is time. However, board members are simply wrong to say that because theirs is a Policy Governance board, they are excused from development work or other external relations activities.

In Trust encourages every board to make good governance its policy. For those schools where the commitment to excellence in board leadership has led to Policy Governance, In Trust is ready and able to assist board leaders in applying the model in an academic setting.

Questions for boards considering Policy Governance:

  • Are there several champions for Policy Governance within the board who can enthusiastically educate the rest of the board about the model? Can they help guide the board in developing an initial set of operating policies?
  • Are funds available to pay for Policy Governance training for several board members and the president?
  • Is the board sufficiently disciplined to stay the course with Policy Governance? How might your board deal  with the cautions identified in this article?
  • Does the Policy Governance model fit with the organizational culture and theological underpinnings of  the school?
  • How will the board integrate Policy Governance and shared governance?

(Page numbers in this article refer to Boards That Make a Difference: A New Design for Leadership in Nonprofit and Public Organizations, by John Carver (3rd ed., Jossey Bass, 2006, 448 pp., $36).
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