If it ain't fixed, break it: Nonprofits reimagine governanceThe Nonprofit Journal Project

“Not one of us can solve any of these issues on our own," says Mesfin Johnson. "We need to connect across ecosystems, across the country, across the world."
One size does not fit all. 

For some time now, the status quo of nonprofit governance hasn’t been working for many, maybe most, organizations. 

“We keep tinkering in this broken system, constantly trying to reinvent ourselves as a sector,” says Yodit Mesfin Johnson, president and CEO of Nonprofit Enterprise at Work (NEW). “We all know it’s terrible and we’re all complicit in it."

The capacity-building center with locations in Ann Arbor and Detroit works across the region to “inspire and equip mission-driven people, organizations, and communities to realize their visions of a just and thriving society.” 

But nonprofit governance needs a complete overhaul, says Johnson. Its paternalistic structure, and "watchdog" mentality add unnecessary burdens, she says. Between the board structure, and the staff and programs side, she and many of her clients are exhausted, she says, from running what feels like two organizations instead of one. 

“There’s also a lot of pressure to behave like a business because of how money flows into the sector, and who controls [it], which is often private-sector folks,” she says. “To be lean and efficient, when in fact, caring for people and community is neither of those things.” 

At NEW, Mesfin Johnson and her colleagues have been, for some time, "in a period of reckoning and deep contemplation,” thinking with many others, she says, about deep inequities, and also opportunities.

She is finding it impossible to not consider the structures at the nonprofit core, and felt a “soul-level” response when, early during COVID-19, she came across the Reimagining Governance work being done by the Ontario Nonprofit Network (ONN). The initiative is casting a vision across provincial and international lines for new ways of thinking about and experimenting with governance, inviting organizations to free themselves from old habits to try more thoughtful, equitable, and innovative approaches.

“At a time when everything felt like it was breaking, their work felt possible,” says Mesfin Johnson. “It was healing, and restorative, and so exciting to me. They're all about the collective, and like, how do we draw people near to this work? What are the different ecosystems? How do we push the edges of what it means to have a board?"

Yodit Mesfin Johnson. Photo by Nick Hagen.
Nonprofits have previously explored governance outside the traditional models. It’s not ideas the sector is short on, she says, but rather the implementation. ONN doesn’t offer up a new design, yet their work is raising alternative ways of thinking about what’s been normalized in the sector, and how to leave behind practices that are no longer serving organizations. 

"We have to turn away from the master's tools," says Mesfin Johnson, "tools we've inherited from the private sector, the academy, and someone else telling us how to be, instead of trusting our communities, the leaders in them, and the cultures that've taught us for the entirety of humanity how to be, outside of white supremacy."

When she began to experiment and introduce these ideas to her colleagues and clients, the response was that of hope, she says, a collective “Ah, yes.”

Within the pandemic, many organizations are still struggling to pull a board together and may not yet have the capacity to explore. It’s a privilege, she says, to be able to "try on" these ideas, along with other leaders, with a goal to invite more minds to the table. 

“Not one of us can solve any of these issues on our own," she says. "We need to connect across ecosystems, across the country, across the world to help repair the harm of white supremacy and colonialism, and to move from being a sector that's servicing the downstream impacts of trauma, poverty and systemic inequity to one creating vibrancy and opportunities to flourish with community not for it.”

Now is the time

Inspiring this type of vision is a big part of the goal behind Reimagining Governance, a collaborative initiative founded in 2018 between ONN and Ignite NPS.

Serving Ontario’s 58,000 nonprofits, ONN is an independent network focused on policy, advocacy, services and special projects supporting the conditions for nonprofits to thrive. Toronto-based foundation, Ignite NPS, provokes new and creative ways of working, helping nonprofit staff and boards to lead in an increasingly complex environment. 

Spearheaded by Erin Kang, ONN’s Manager of Networks and Special Projects, Reimagining Governance is one of two people-focused initiatives the network is currently championing. The other is to help build environments of Decent Work within the nonprofit industrial complex, led by Network Engagement Manager Yamikani Msosa.

The research behind Kang’s project indicates that now is the tipping point for nonprofits to transform their governing structures, processes, cultures, and practices, which haven’t kept up with the growing complexities the sector faces. 

“As someone who joined the sector really young, I think there’s a hunger and a desire to see [it] dismantle systems that aren’t working,” says Kang. “Younger generations are courageously calling out and holding accountable what they feel is inequitable or unjust. If the sector creates a space that enables and supports the good work that’s happening, rather than stifles it, as many folks do feel, that would open doors to more young people."Erin Kang

To test the research and hear firsthand what experiences nonprofits were having, the initiative collaborated with a wide range of people across its network through surveys, webinars, in-person and virtual conversations, interactive platforms and more.

"This is definitely not just about issues of diversity or recruitment,” says Kang. “It’s not these symptoms we need to be focused on."  The root problem, she says, is how governance is designed, interpreted and realized.

Though the status quo may benefit a few, overall, it isn't working, she says, especially when applying an equity lens. “The folks who are struggling are going to be smaller organizations, younger organizations and racialized organizations."

Many nonprofits are realizing their models don't inherently work, and are "part and parcel of the very same systems folks are trying to challenge," says Msosa. They want to create possibilities, and "lean into governance structures and care practices that are reflective of what the community needs,'" they say. "Yet, they find themselves in infrastructure that is top down, that is not collective in nature."

Throwing away the rule book

So, how to respond to the need for new governance without replicating its current problems? Because there isn't one answer, the initiative’s approach has been to inspire organizations to take the time to name, reflect on, and be intentional about what governance work is, what it needs to look like for their specific organization and then to design unique things to match that.  

“We encourage teams to consider the ultimate goal of governance, which isn’t strategic planning or even keeping the books,” Kang says, “but rather to ensure a positive impact on the communities the organization's serving."

In 2021, to begin testing the tools and resources ONN's co-creating, nine Ontario-based organizations participated in 2-way learning labs. Over seven months, the teams engaged with continuums and brainstorming activities to help them pull apart governance work from a nebulous thing to specific, tangible tasks.

They performed activities like mapping out their governance through a broader lens to help create more diverse, fair, and inclusive decision-making. They looked at increasing their agility through project-based pods, committees, etc. They considered how a board might serve as the center in a network system of governance, rather than as the head of a body. They examined the systems of colonialism and racism in the sector to help identify symptoms within their own work. And they brainstormed ways to better align with the values, interests, and expectations of emerging leaders.

With close examination, participants found they actually had a lot of flexibility to do away with things that aren’t working, Kang says. The challenge is that there aren’t a lot of examples for organizations to draw from.

ONN's goal isn't tied to any specific metrics, but to provoke a shift in the way people think about governance. Kang sees it as a movement, a “tidal wave,” where those who are ready (and have the capacity) can start to experiment and learn from the stories coming out of the learning labs.

Yamikani MsosaWhile some of its tools and resources are based in Ontario law, the spirit behind Reimagining Governance is without bounds. People in the United States, across Canada, and elsewhere are having these conversations, she says.

And that's where the change starts, Msosa says. "It can be easy to get caught up in complex strategic plans, and planning sessions and policy changes, when the crux is about shifting behavior."

"Sometimes there isn't a lot of value seen in that work, because it's not seen as a measurable output," they say, "but it's actually where transformation lies. We see the manifestations once we lean into it.”

Right now, the initiative is in a bridging phase between designing and implementing more products they plan to share with the world early summer. Until then, organizations can start their journey with its initial resources here.

Similar to a video game strategy, Kang says, multiple entry points offer teams the opportunity to ease into this process. Organizations will be able to take what they want and work on one thing at a time. Supported by a foundation, it's a “choose your own adventure” in governance.

Putting ideas into practice 

At the Michigan Breastfeeding Network (MIBFN), executive director Shannon McKenney Shubert and her team are trying the approach on for size. The statewide coalition works “to advocate, educate and community-build alongside families and organizations for the advancement of an equitable, just, and breastfeeding-supportive culture.”

“People know how important breastfeeding is, it’s not about that,” McKenney Shubert says, “Eighty-five percent of Michigan families who don't agree on anything else initiate breastfeeding. But, our systems are set up for them not to be able to.”

Logistically necessary separation, for example when women return to work, or forcible separation through prison systems or foster care, she says, causes the duration rates to plummet.

Black and Indigenous mothers disproportionately struggle, she says, to provide their babies with human milk.  

"So we go in and try to disrupt these systems that make it impossible for mothers. And we lead from the center of impact," she says, "in solidarity with those who are, and have been, most marginalized by our systems, and who face the greatest inequities in treatment that lead to disparities in breastfeeding outcomes.”

So, if MIBFN's working to disrupt systems of white supremacy, capitalism, and patriarchy, but nonprofits are grounded in those systems, she asks how an organization can serve as a nonprofit, but then build what they need?Shannon McKenney Shubert. Photo by Nick Hagen.That’s where Reimaging Governance comes in, principles McKenney Shubert and her board of directors have been introduced to by NEW. The statewide organization sought guidance from Mesfin Johnson over two years ago, when its board underwent a complete turnover. The majority female, Black, and Indigenous group that stepped up to lead, in a time of great challenges and transformation, were passionate about the work, but had no previous board experience. 

They reached out to Mesfin Johnson, whose work centers these principles, to learn about governance.

"Yodit had done her homework. She knew our raw material and what she was getting into," McKenney Shubert says. "With most boards, you're trying to take rich old white folks and convince them to do this after they've been board leaders forever. We were the exact opposite, very diverse, very scrappy, ready to get it done, but no idea how.”

Through training, consulting work, and collaboratively interviewing community partners, NEW has been working to help MIBFN get a sense of who they want to be internally, she says, who their partners think they should be, and how they can better serve alongside those partners.  

Looking to ONN's body of work has been freeing, McKenney Shubert says. When questions and differences arise, rather than relying on “stale template documents,” her board has been inspired to examine each decision-making process, and in many cases, vote to modify their bylaws to really fit their organizational needs. 

Choosing to meet remotely, even prior to COVID-19, has allowed them to alter who's at the table. Zooming from her kitchen table in Dearborn, McKenney Shubert says the coalition is now able to reach the entire state and prioritize the knowledge and experiences of Black and Indigenous women who know their communities and the work.

If you're going to lead from the center of impact that means asking who needs, who wants, and who knows firsthand about what your organization is providing, she says.

“I think it's very white-centered, capitalist and patriarchal to think we need a project manager who we can convince that breastfeeding matters," she says. "No, you need somebody who thinks breastfeeding matters and you can teach them project management."

Considering other ways white supremacy shows up in nonprofits, MIBFN also works to avoid “worshiping" the written word. Though meeting minutes are a requirement, they don’t need to be extensive, McKenney Shubert says, and emails shouldn’t replace conversations. "If we need to vote via email, we will, but we don’t have lengthy debates that way.”

ONN’s vision has also inspired MIBFN to continually reconsider the size of their board. In its transition, the organization brought on 13 members, but has since discerned less are needed. Michigan’s nonprofit law requires three, and for them it’s really fewer, she says, enough, but not too difficult to make a quorum. As members complete their term, the board will wait until it shrinks in size before recruiting. 

“Eventually, it may go down to three or up to 20. Who knows? But they're willing to have that conversation and rumble on it,” she says, “rather than being like, that's the way we've always done it.” The group also plans to revisit its entire bylaws and organizational procedures once a year, she says, to ensure they still work for the group. 

Walking alongside this group as they explore has helped Mesfin Johnson to trust a change for the sector is possible. Some things have worked, and others haven’t, and there’s still so much to do, she says, but these ideas are taking root because there’s a receptivity.

“They believe in their vision, and they’re willing to try and experiment, and adapt, and be agile for whatever helps them get to that vision,” she says, “and that’s the game changer. “

Though the missions and the work will be different for every organization, ultimately reimaging governance, she says, is about ceding power and privilege into the communities nonprofits serve. 

“And that," she says, "just lights me on fire.”

This entry is part of our Nonprofit Journal Project, an initiative inviting nonprofit leaders across Metro Detroit to contribute their thoughts via journal entries on how COVID-19, a heightened awareness of racial injustice and inequality, issues of climate change and more are affecting their work--and how they are responding. This series is made possible with the generous support of our partners, the Michigan Nonprofit Association and Co.act Detroit.