Reimagining Governance

An initiative exploring new approaches to governance for nonprofits.

Governance is a complex system – the board is just one part of it.

The nature of the sector has fundamentally shifted – and approaches to governance in nonprofit organizations aren’t keeping pace. We are at a tipping point that requires transformative thinking about the ways that governance can be fulfilled.

It’s time to stop the inertia

The current design of governance – its structures, culture, and processes – are not serving us well.

Over the years, governance models and strategies have largely focused on the performance of the board of directors. Governance is important for the accountability and responsibilities of an organization, but how else can we be doing this?

Although the board is a critical part of the governance system, the whole system must be examined in order for governance to keep up with 21st century expectations. Doing so will shift the conversation from “How do we make boards more effective?” to “How do we govern more effectively?”.

We need to reimagine the very design of governance so that ‘effective governance’ isn’t wholly dependent on maintaining an effective board.

Pictured: a graphic of the Governance Ecosystem which outlines some of the major factors and influences that can impact an organization’s governance.

A bird’s eye view

Governance is a complex system with many players, influences, and factors. Beyond the board, there is a messy kaleidoscope of forces at play, with many people contributing to governance work (see above graphic). These governance ‘players’ shape governance both intentionally and unintentionally and can enable good governance or perpetuate ineffective practices.

Taking this broader perspective of the governance landscape can free organizations from the narrow perspective that governance is equated with the board of directors.

This means that new approaches to governance can’t simply address the symptoms of the issue, like a board’s efficiency or how a board communicates (read more reasons in our Framing Report). Focusing solutions within the realm of the board when trying to reimagine governance is akin to treating somebody with a cold by handing them a bandage! Solutions to governance ailments must address the whole governance system, including and beyond the board.

Governance as a Complex System

In addition to the wider governance ecosystem, individual nonprofit organizations also carry a complex governance system within them. We developed a map that aims to provide a bird’s eye view of the various players, influencers, structures, and functions that interact together to form a nonprofit organization’s governance system.

Download and use the map to spark conversations with your team and board, and discover possibilities for your governance!

Connect With Us

We know there are no quick fixes or simple answers, and that people from the sector itself will be critical to successfully reimagine governance. Add your voice to the conversation:

Are you a governance leader/expert in the nonprofit sector interested in contributing to the development of this work? Email our Project Lead, Erin Kang, at erin@theonn.ca

Don’t wait! Use our new resource, Map of a Nonprofit Organization’s Governance System, to have conversations with  your team and board and ask critical questions about your organization’s governance system. Tweet or email us your stories on how it went or questions that came up!

Scroll down and sign up for our Reimagining Governance listserv to receive direct updates on upcoming opportunities for involvement and input.

Reimagining Governance, in collaboration with Ignite NPS, is an initiative that will advance new approaches to the governance of nonprofit organizations.

Resources and Reports

The current design of nonprofit organizational governance isn’t optimal or sustainable. This creates an opportunity to transform the design so that it’s more consistently effective and able to respond well to today’s complex environment. The design includes governance structures, how governance functions are fulfilled, and how they all work together within its ecosystem. Read more in our Framing Report.

The context for nonprofits is changing, yet the basic form of nonprofit governance remains fundamentally unchanged:

“In recent decades, nonprofit governance has been enhanced by new practices that shift boards of directors away from operations, engage board members more effectively, and better explain their roles and responsibilities. Factors as varied as new technologies, sophisticated financing models, hybrid organizational structures, and shifting demographics have altered the way organizations engage with each other, conduct their work, and accomplish their missions.” Next Generation Governance: Emerging Leaders’ Perspectives on Governance in the Nonprofit Sector

“Nonprofits are experiencing a growing demand for their services from increasingly diverse communities and increasing demands from governments and funders. There is also greater focus on collaboration, mergers, network-based models of organizing, cross-sectoral partnerships and common approaches to measuring impact in the sector.” Peering into the Future: Reimagining Governance in the Non-Profit Sector, Mowat NFP

“This challenge is complicated by the significant leadership transition that will occur over the next five to ten years as the baby boom generation exits governance leadership and the smaller Gen X can’t replace it… This shortfall is amplified in rural communities as young people move away for school and work.” Next Generation Governance: Emerging Leaders’ Perspectives on Governance in the Nonprofit Sector

Governance determines who has a voice in making decisions, how decisions are made and who is ultimately accountable.

“It is a framework of responsibilities, requirements and accountabilities within which organizations operate, including regulatory, audit and reporting requirements, and relationships with key stakeholders.”

C. Cornforth, (2011). Nonprofit Governance Research: Limitations of the Focus on Boards and Suggestions for Further Research” Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly 41:6: 1116- 1135


We’re grateful for the financial support of Ignite NPS, the City of Toronto, and Toronto Foundation.

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