Book review: Nonprofit Governance

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by David Williams

Nonprofit Governance, published last June, discusses governance in ‘nonprofit’ or ‘not-for-profit’ organisations. While sector boundaries are imprecise and can change, the focus is on ‘third sector’ organisations. There are no specific examples of higher education institutions in the book, but it does explore issues of governance that vice-chancellors and their governing bodies will find of interest.

The contributors to the book are largely academic staff working in Australia, North America and the United Kingdom. The book takes a research perspective, but includes case studies illustrating aspects of governance in a specific sector or organisational setting. Nonprofit Governance is a collection of 14 chapter length contributions, organised under five themes. Each theme explores a current area of research on governance.

The reader is reminded that governance is a function and a board is a structure. Further, there is a need to look beyond composition and structure and give attention to board behaviours. Questions about the groups most likely to be represented on Boards, and democratic participation through and beyond Boards are explored.

The behaviour of the board chairs, individual board members and the board as a collective form two of the book’s themes The chapter entitled ‘Board monitoring and judgement as processes of sense making’ considers issues of monitoring non-financial performance and explores ‘sense making’ by Board members. The idea of ‘failures’ of board monitoring being ‘good people struggling to make sense of their circumstances’, rather than ‘bad people making poor decisions’ is introduced.

A review of organisational crises experienced by two museums and two performing arts organisations forms one of the case studies in the book. The problems created by unchallenged trust by the Board of the chief executive and a failure to receive, or demand, adequate and regular information about financial performance are set out. Subsequent financial difficulties resulted in a pivot in the Board’s focus towards financial matters, and away from ‘mission orientated’ activities.

The balance of ‘trust’ and ‘control’ between the Board and the chief executive was changed by the crisis. A period of intensive Board control (i.e. the opposite polarization to the previous situation), during which the organisation’s problems were addressed, was followed by the emergence of a ‘negotiated balance’ to the relationship between the Board and the (and in some cases, a new) chief executive. For some organisations, a further element to post-crisis governance was the remaking of the Board to change the balance of members with business skills and those with professional, sector-specific, expertise.

Not all contributors to the book support a move towards more conventional board structures and membership, and the Community Engagement Model™, is put forward as an alternative approach for at least some nonprofit organisations.

The case of English housing associations illustrates the impact of context on governance. Many associations have assumed responsibilities for what was formerly a public service. As a consequence they have moved from operating as ‘a small-scale complementary service provider to the main provider of social housing over the past 30 years.’ As a result the changes to the scale and complexity of running these organisations has affected governance substantially. Board membership has moved from the inclusion of representative members (e.g. tenants and local authorities), working on a voluntary and unpaid basis, to boards of ‘professional’ independent non-executives now paid for their work. A change from representational to professional boards.

The book goes on to consider ‘multi-level governance’. Contributors distinguish, and discuss, ‘nested’ (intra-) and ‘network’ (inter-organisational) governance in the context of federations and collaborative structures.

Although this book contains many interesting observations and insights, and claims to be written in ‘an accessible manner’, it unlikely to be read by those who might benefit most from some of its contents. As one contributor acknowledges when discussing their own contribution to the book, research on nonprofit governance is frequently published in scholarly journals (or discussed at academic conferences?) and risks never reaching practitioner communities. This is a pity, and a timely reminder to academic researchers of what should be an important purpose of their work.

Nonprofit Governance: innovative perspectives and approaches, edited by Chris Cornforth and Wiillam A Brown.

David Williams is the Leadership Foundation’s governance web editor.

Efficiency in higher education

Forumula One

by Dr Mark Pegg

How do leaders build a culture of efficiency and value for money in their universities? How do they encourage their staff to see efficiency as an integral part of what they do and encourage them to share their thinking and spread best practice – to embed this in the culture of their institution?

It is normal in world class organisations everywhere. You don’t have to love Formula One motor racing to be impressed by a pit team changing a set of tyres in 5 seconds – an amazing combination of cutting edge technology, brilliant design, planning and superb teamwork – a model of efficiency. Impressed by what they saw, leaders in a surgical team from Great Ormond Street Hospital asked to work with Ferrari and used what they learned to introduce new working practices. They were able to enhance their handover to intensive care – to be more efficient; be more professional at what they do and save lives.

In business, leaders do not survive for long unless they relentlessly search for efficiency and effectiveness from their staff. If their company drives down costs, enhances processes and innovates to gain a competitive advantage. Efficiency is the route to better pricing and higher quality which tends to win more customers. It is the professional thing to do.

If these are normal benchmarks, why is it so much harder to lead staff to adopt the same approach in a university? After all, many of the best ideas that make business more efficient come from academic research, enquiry and discovery. Efficiency through technological change, the internet, worldwide web, mobile devices owe much to the brilliance of academic thinking and inspiration. Efficiency through behavioural change, where new thinking in organisational behaviour helps organisations gets the very best out of their people.

The best leaders capture and embed this genius in a successful university culture, where efficiency is at the heart of what all staff do. The Leadership Foundation develops sector leaders and our experience on ways to do this has been enhanced by new evidence and analysis from a research team with guidance from some of the sector’s thought leaders in a roundtable discussion.

We want to help leaders identify the features of successful academic practices and processes. No one size fits all; it is sensitive and set in the context of a wide range of related issues. We found successfully led institutions clearly identify and communicate their mission and values and define a distinctive position in higher education. The efficiency agenda must start here. Leaders should introduce flexible practices and processes and employment contracts and persuade staff of the benefits for their own careers and working conditions as well as their institution.

They must lead in a more business-like fashion without being diverted from the core purposes of a higher education institution univerisity or higher education college. Today’s leaders must be sophisticated, capable of an adaptable and light touch leadership style, willing to provide their staff with opportunities to develop by learning from and experiencing different practices and processes not only from the sector but also from outside higher education.

To deliver an efficiency agenda, leaders need to develop highly motivated middle managers, particularly departmental heads and deans, to create leadership at every level, empowered to apply better working practices. Having appointed and developed the leaders they should adopt a performance management system that is designed to help staff develop and realise their full potential, rather than focussing on penalising those that under-perform.

In an increasingly competitive world, they should not allow this competitiveness to prevent effective sharing of best practice or the development of mutually beneficial collaborations and partnerships. Leaders should be outward-facing, closely engaging with local, national and international organisations and institutions – to adopt and adapt the best practices wherever they can be found. In rapidly changing world, they and their senior managers in particular, must be highly responsive, keeping themselves well informed of developments that affect the sector and their institution, and use this knowledge to respond quickly to emerging opportunities and threats.

Efficient and creative organisations should be happy bedfellows, but often they are not. Efficiency is the hallmark of any genuinely world class institution and inside their university; they are likely to possess the right tools and techniques in abundance. Leaders should be optimistic and confident they can capture and channel this resource, to create an efficient mindset. It is the professional thing to do.

Dr Mark Pegg is the chief executive of the Leadership Foundation, this article is based upon a talk that he will be giving for UUK’s Efficiency Exchange on the leadership and leadership development issues around creating a culture for efficiency.

Arab countries in transition

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by David Lock

Under the UK’s Presidency of the G8 for 2013 the Deauville Partnership with Arab Countries in Transition conference was hosted in London on 16 September. The purpose of the conference was to highlight opportunities and the steps being taken to enable Egypt, Jordan, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia and Yemen, (countries in transition, either in response to uprisings or to avoid them) to develop strong economies and start to meet the expectations of their people. I attended and now share some of the issues and what the Leadership Foundation will be doing to enable UK HEIs to play a part in addressing the challenges.

Foreign Office Minister for the Middle East and North Africa, Alistair Burt, opening the conference said: ’The changes that we have seen in the Middle East and North Africa since 2011 have been momentous and,… when taken together, they constitute the most significant international development so far of the 21st century.’
He said that the underlying motivation for the uprisings that swept the region had been ‘the demand for legitimate rights and respect for individual dignity; including the prospect of finding a job and of citizens being able to ply their trade without state interference. Meeting the high expectations of the people is a complicated and challenging task, and it is one that a fragile security environment makes even more difficult.’

From his remarks and the inputs and discussion which followed it is clear that an economic response is paramount. It is estimated that up to 100 million jobs will need to be created across the Middle East and North Africa during the next decade. The private sector will be critical in fuelling the growth needed to create those jobs by providing the investment. However, issues that are vital for achieving a sustainable long term future, such as furthering women’s economic empowerment, the development of entrepreneurism, the development of renewable energy, agribusiness, tourism, banking and finance and the creation of transparent legislative structures will require a response from all sectors of society, including higher education.

In March the Leadership Foundation signed an agreement with the Association of Arab Universities (AArU) to provide leadership development programmes for its members, which included universities in the transition countries. Together with Cardiff Metropolitan University the LF has undertaken scoping exercises in 4 of the transition countries and run pilot leadership programmes. Under the new agreement these will be extended to the 18 other countries with universities in membership of AArU and the range of themes will be extended.

As well as strategic leadership, investment in enabling more women to become effective leaders, developing capacity for producing graduates that are more entrepreneurial, embracing employers as more significant stakeholders and, taking a longer term view, encouraging more young researchers to develop leadership skills, will be an important contribution to achieving the aims of the countries concerned.
Universities in the UK are good at all these things. The partnerships that can grow from participating in the leadership development activities at an early stage could place UK universities in a strong position as the fruits of the Deauville initiative ripen.

The details of the LF’s activities with AArU in 2013-14 will be determined in Jordan in October. The LF is strongest when it works in partnership with its member UK universities. I would welcome the views of LF member universities on ways in which they would like to partner in this work.

David Lock is the Leadership Foundation’s director of international. Contact him at david.lock [at] 

Leadership in Saudi Arabia: women’s perspective

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By Rebecca Nestor

In June of this year I was privileged to work with a group of sixteen high-achieving women students at the University of Dammam, Saudi Arabia, on a new five-day programme to support their personal and leadership development. I adapted and customised a programme from one devised for male students delivered by Leadership Foundation associate Glyn Jones in 2012*. The programme aimed to provide a supportive group learning experience leaving participants with insight into their individual personality type and personal leadership style and understanding of high-performing teams, how organisations work, leadership principles, influencing, networking and organisational change. The programme was part of the University of Dammam’s contribution to the current government’s efforts on improving women’s access to the professions.

Dammam gave the Leadership Foundation a high-quality brief, including feedback on the 2012 programme and how they wanted to see the young women’s programme take shape. Just as importantly, they put me in touch with Dr Mona Al-Sheikh, who teaches medicine and is also in the University’s medical education unit. Dr Al-Sheikh proved to be a great partner in the development of the programme. We talked via Skype and exchanged emails while I was adapting Glyn’s design. She gave me some excellent background on the prospective participants, from which I learned that they had been selected not just by their tutors but also by their peers, using criteria including morality and helpfulness as well as their academic performance. And they were, I was told, very enthusiastic about the programme and excited about the opportunity it represented for them. Mona encouraged me to focus the programme on helping participants to understand their own potential and to work together – so plenty of activities, team-based exercises, and personal reflection, processes that she explained would be relatively unlikely to form a part of their normal university studies.

With no previous visits to Saudi Arabia to inform my planning, I wondered what the participants’ previous experience of leadership would have been. In a segregated society, what role models would these young women have seen and how relevant or appropriate would my leadership background feel to them? How could we talk about women’s leadership in ways that respected Saudi culture, Islamic values and my own principles?

The answer turned out to be threefold. First, I drew on my experience of women-only personal development programmes and made community-building a key part of the design. The group started with personal timelines, focusing on important events in their personal lives; they worked in pairs and small groups, returning to the small groups several times throughout the programme so as to build a supportive network; and they practised giving and receiving feedback to each other. As part of this community-building, I shared my own experiences of leadership at community level and to some extent opened up my own life to their scrutiny. One participant said at the end that she had shared things with others on the programme that she had never previously discussed outside her family. Secondly, we discussed and articulated our values explicitly during the programme, both in leadership stories and in the practical activities (see photos). This enabled a focus on the morality of leadership, and of Islamic leadership, which seemed to me to resonate powerfully with participants. And thirdly, my colleague Mona acted as a role model herself, discussed other women leaders, and brought in female leaders in days 4 and 5 of the programme so that participants could hear their stories through the frame of the ideas we had discussed in days 1-3.

I’ve learned a lot from the experience. My cultural antennae have been sharpened, which can only help my consultancy skills; I took some risks in design and delivery, and the programme benefited from it; and on a personal level, visiting Saudi Arabia (albeit only for a few days) was an amazing learning experience for me, and I loved getting to know the women in our programme and understanding a little about their lives. I had a couple of delightful social gatherings, including a trip to the mall, and was the subject of traditional Arabic generosity and hospitality.  I got some great advice on how to fix my hijab properly (though I fear making it stay in place is something that only comes with more practice than I had time for). The photo shows me in the abaya or long gown which was a present from Mona, and with my hijab in place thanks to help from the students.

Reflecting on the relevance of this experience for leaders in UK higher education, I’m struck by the power of drawing on one’s own personal experience, and how this helps engage with others with whom one might have thought one had little in common.

*The 2013 run of the Dammam programme for male students took place in Greenwich, London 26 – 30 August and was led by Glyn Jones. 

Rebecca Nestor is the Director of Learning For Good Ltd, and is an associate and regional co-ordinator of the Leadership Foundation

The beating heart: student governors

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By Dr Mark Pegg

I have been asked to speak to student governors about why the Leadership Foundation needs to listen to the agenda set by emerging student leaders and how we need to develop leadership skills for careers beyond the university boardroom.
I was delighted to be asked. I am a believer. Student governors make a real difference. At several levels – big picture thinking, where students influence university strategic decision-making, at the practical day to day learning about leading complex organisations and through significant early exposure to personal leadership development – all with long term benefits.

I was a president of a student union and student governor myself many years ago. It was a small college, but the principles hold good, and I still use learning from the experience pretty much every day. When I was at university we had a voice, but no real power. If lecturers were indifferent (sadly many were) the response was: ‘tough, like it our lump it’. If we did not like the rise in fees in a time of great inflation we went on rent strike, did a demo and occupied the university offices. We developed as political animals, but actually had zero influence in corridors of power or any decisive impact on decision-making.

Today, at the strategic level, the balance of power has clearly shifted in favour of students. With the NSS, student loans, overseas students, increased competition for students, league tables, it is obvious universities need to contract with students. To hear and heed the student voice. They need a responsible, empowered student representative body, one they listen to, respond to and incorporate the thinking in to decisions. Learning for student governors here is invariably around complexity faced by leaders, where decisions are ambiguous and difficult. To progress issues where student governors have a lot to offer – such as efficiency, sustainability, employability and diversity – is often hard. To turn discussion into decisions and then into action and achievement is never clear cut.

Learning from the best leaders, those who take this on, bring people with them and make it happen is gold dust. It is also a two way process. Students are more than  consumers; they are part of the body politic of a functioning university, part of the beating heart. It’s a commonplace observation that students should provide some reverse mentoring and inform senior decision making on the digital future – resources, investment and working practices on social networks, mobile learning and the learning space students need.

At the practical level, you learn so much about administrative complexity, how culture eats strategy for breakfast, the illusion that pulling a lever in the boardroom is necessarily connected to anything moving or more importantly, moving in the direction you want it to go.

I was fortunate to attend meetings held by a very good chair. At meetings I chair, I use this approach as my baseline and endeavour to live up to the standards he set. I learned about organisational dynamics and the politics amongst the members of the Governing Body, about facing up to difficult issues (what happens when you don’t) and the challenging business of negotiating student fees and rents.

Personal learning about leadership helped me throughout my career. I had formed a mental picture of what was needed. It helped me get a job as executive assistant to the chairman of a large corporation and to grasp quickly the challenging scope of the job and what doing it well looked like. As a CEO today, I still call on deeply etched memories of sitting on a Governing Body in leading my own organisation and, completing the circle, in the Governing Body I sit on today.

Being a student governor can seriously affect your life. Never lose the learning as your career progresses, stop every now and then to reflect on what you have seen and heard – the good, the bad and the indifferent – and make a mental note to use it to become the very best leader you can be.

Dr Mark Pegg is the chief executive of the Leadership Programme. The annual student governor seminar attracts almost 90 students from around the UK and is the first event of the 2013-14 leadership development year.