Digging In With ONN

Reimagining Governance

Episode Summary

Nonprofits need to be asking bold questions and re-examining how governance is done; the status quo isn’t working for everyone. In this episode, project lead for Reimagining Governance, Erin Kang, shares how taking an expansive view of governance can open up space for asking different questions and deeper dialogue around issues of racial justice and equity. She also discusses how nonprofits could design their governance to align with their unique circumstances. Guest biography: Erin (she/her) has a background as a facilitator, curriculum writer, independent educator, event producer, and storyteller. She joined the ONN in 2019 as Project Lead for our Reimagining Governance Initiative. She is the founder of Stories of Ours, a grassroots project that uses creative arts and storytelling to challenge dominant narratives. Erin's work lies at the intersections of anti-oppressive pedagogy, community collaborations, and creative arts.

Episode Notes

Nonprofits need to be asking bold questions and re-examining how governance is done; the status quo isn’t working for everyone. In this episode, project lead for Reimagining Governance, Erin Kang, shares how taking an expansive view of governance can open up space for asking different questions and deeper dialogue around issues of racial justice and equity. She also discusses how nonprofits could design their governance to align with their unique circumstances.

Guest biography: Erin (she/her) has a background as a facilitator, curriculum writer, independent educator, event producer, and storyteller. She joined the ONN in 2019 as Project Lead for our Reimagining Governance Initiative. She is the founder of Stories of Ours, a grassroots project that uses creative arts and storytelling to challenge dominant narratives. Erin's work lies at the intersections of anti-oppressive pedagogy, community collaborations, and creative arts.


Episode Transcription

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Kavita: Welcome to Digging In With ONN. A podcast that focuses on public policy and systems change that impact Ontario's nonprofit sector and how we can advocate together as a sector from Decent Work, Reimagining Governance, public lands, data and privacy, and more. For all nonprofits, sub-sectors across Ontario, big and small and in between. This series of digging in with ONN will focus on Decent Work using an intersectional lens that centers Truth and Reconciliation, Racial Justice, and equity practices. My name is Kavita and my co-host Yami will be joining us in future episodes.

This week we will draw connections between governance, Decent Work and the often mistaken need to diversify boards to support systems change within nonprofits. In this episode, we are joined by my colleague, Erin Kang, who is an ONN’s project lead for our Reimagining Governance Initiative. Welcome, Erin.

Erin: Hello.

Kavita: Thank you so much for joining us today. 

Erin: So happy to be here. 

Kavita: Can't wait to learn from your expertise here. So for our audience, we have some questions we're going to ask you. So let's start off with the connection between Decent Work and Reimagining Governance. And just a quick shout out to Erin also for naming this podcast.

Erin: Thank you, it was interesting, I didn't think when I threw in the name that it would be chosen. So whoo! Yeah, so Decent Work and Reimagining Governance? Well, , in the first episode of this podcast, you folks really talked a lot about what Decent Work is fundamentally and how it's really rooted in values and not only governance, which ultimately is about who has a voice and making decisions, how those decisions are made, and who is accountable for those decisions. It's a key pathway for achieving Decent Work. But it's also about that core piece of, how is your governance actually reflecting the values of your organization. 

So, Reimagining Governance is a project which has a goal to disrupt the status quo, to provoke a shift, not just in what nonprofit boards look like, but how we think about and do governance work as a whole. The status quo does not work for everyone, and it never has. And so ultimately, this initiative is trying to push away from the idea that there's one way or a few ways to do governance work. And when Pam spoke in the first episode about how Decent Work is an exercise in building a critical pathway towards equity, Racial Justice and Reconciliation. Well, those are not light pursuits. And it takes looking at all the layers and interconnections in the sector and governance is a huge piece of that.

Kavita: Absolutely. This is no light project to take on. That's for sure. I mean, I think in the title itself, Reimagining Governance, right. So I think reimagining takes a lot of work. And then once it is reimagined, the implementation of that new vision is certainly going to take time and a lot of commitment from folks who are benefiting from the structures that exist right now. So I'd imagine that would be a challenge to say the least. 

Let's talk about board structures and governance within nonprofit organizations. Often, we witnessed the desire to have diversity or representation on boards. What do you believe the questions we are asking around board diversity should be?

Erin: Okay. 

Kavita: *chuckles* So you're not getting easy questions today. Sorry. 

Erin: I actually love this question. And I'm going to pre apologize for probably the length, but I'm going to try to keep it pretty, straightforward. I'm going to do that annoying thing of lifting us up from this question to a bigger exploration space. So one of the first things that came out of the Reimagining Governance work was really looking at governance as a complex system. So not just a fixed entity or “Oh, governance means bylaws and policies”. But governance is a complex living, dynamic system with many interrelated components and examining it from that lens. 

So rather than focusing on a specific issue, let's take board diversity, we started from this idea that governance is a concept and its design is the implementation of that concept. I said before governance, how we've sort of been approaching it is, who has a voice and making decisions, how is that done, who's accountable. So we came out with this governance framework, which essentially maps out those various components and describes them, and so on. And this is the foundation of the design work that we've been experimenting with, over the last several months.

A lot of people contributed to shaping it, it's available on our webpage right now. But looking at governance, through this more expansive view, and actually naming all of those different components at play, it really allows you to come at thinking about solutions or new approaches to governance in a different way than if you only focus on the board, like improving the board or diversifying the board. I do want to name, of course, that boards are critical pieces in the governance system, it's just that they're not the only ones. 

Kavita: It's one piece of a bigger puzzle. 

Erin: Exactly, yes. And often, those other pieces of the puzzle, they're there, but they're not illuminated like we're not focusing on them. And if you look at literature, or education and stuff that has come out in the past several decades, a lot of it has rightly focused on the board and how it can be more effective and communicate more with the ED and all those different things. But that's still just one part of that system. Within that there's a lot of myths and assumptions around what boards are and what do they need to do. 

One of our people in our network of learning, I guess I'll call it, recently said this work really challenged what they thought of governance, as they kind of thought of it mostly as a set of policies and in fact opened up the perspective to seeing that governance is actually a system of relationships, of different things that are at play. So when you open up this more complex view of governance, it also opens up what's possible. 

Playing with this example of diversity on boards and getting back to your actual question, undisputedly board diversity is important. Sure, let's say we kept this conversation only at the level of board composition, right? It becomes a conversation about how do we squish all those things you need into a group of eight to twelve people? I'm sure you've come across that notion, right? Of, we need to find someone who has legal expertise, maybe HR-

Kavita: Right, we need to check off a bunch of different boxes so that group of people feels “diverse” right?

Erin: And the boxes, they're not just like, oh, yeah, legally, we also want to be considerate of all the various intersections of identity and experience, you want to represent the community. Want people who are strategic and generative and fiduciary, also they’re volunteers.

Kavita: It's a tall order. It's a very tall order for a small group of folks,

Erin: It also keeps any possible solutions rooted into this tiny space and ignores all these other components that actually play really critical roles and how decisions are actually made but are usually left out of the conversation. If we expand this question, how can we get more diversity on our boards? We start thinking about how we can get greater diversity and equity and how we make governance decisions as a whole. It's not just tied to the board as a structure, it's looking at governance from this high level of power and who's making decisions and where does that accountability rest and it opens that space up. I don't think that this is often an approach that we see in this conversation around diversity and equity in boards.

Kavita: It's sort of correct me if I'm wrong, sharing that power that the board has, right, because right now, the thought process is so sort of the board is governance, sort of synonymous and that they have all the power like they approve or not don't approve of the decisions that the charity or nonprofit is making. But if we think about governance, in sort of a more open way and in a more wholesome way, then it's sort of reshifting that power balance too. You get a better balance of power across the organization, as opposed to just sitting with one entity.

Erin: Exactly. That's exactly it. And so we have this other resource right now called board essentials on our webpage, which really just lays out those minimum legal and regulatory requirements that boards have in Ontario. And it's much more minimal than people think a lot of the time. The fear of the legal aspect of things really holds folks back from thinking about different ways of doing stuff. But you nailed it, because it's exactly asking who else can be involved in our governance decision making? And what other structures or bodies could do governance work in addition to the board? And how can it be distributed across the organization in a way that makes sense for that organization? 

One more thought, Pam talked in episode one, about how Decent Work isn't just about minimum standards. I think it's such a parallel because we don't have to think about diversity and equity and justice in such a narrow way as how can this one body be more diverse? Like that is a minimum standard? It's more about who are all of the people who are impacted by this work? And instead of thinking about how they can be involved in this one way, how can we start thinking about really getting creative in filling those gaps? Who's missing from that decision-making process? How can we include them in nonconventional ways? And really just challenge that idea that boards are the only space to engage in governance work?

Kavita: We need to raise the bar. Decent Work is sort of raising the bar for Employment Standards. So I think if we can reimagine governance and think about governance in new ways, that diversity equity lens is a must-have. It's not right to have, it's not part of the checklist, it's sort of assumed to be part of the process. And then go from there. 

Erin: It becomes the approach. 

Kavita: Yeah. I think, hopefully, we're seeing that beyond governance to go on. What are ways we can examine board structures, as you sort of touched upon from a justice-centered framework, whether that's Indigenous justice or Racial justice? What does that look like, when we're thinking about board structures?

Erin: It's such an important question. I think, fundamentally, this is about naming that the history of nonprofit governance is grounded in colonial systems and perspectives that prioritize a specific framework and a way of doing governance and naming that and understanding how that might underpin how we do things is so critical to actually implementing any strategy because otherwise, you're just going to stay at that surface level. 

A lot of the work and conversations that we've been having with nonprofits, and governance leaders has really been, again, about distributing that leadership and power. And although we do have to acknowledge that boards hold specific legal obligations, it doesn't mean that they have to sit at the top of a hierarchy. And so then it's also about deepening relationships, not just plopping people into a committee, and then figuring out what they should talk about, but really thinking about who should shape these decisions and how, and creating the ways to do that. 

Also, I would say there are so many Indigenous leaders and Black leaders who are doing work around bringing Indigenous and Afro-centric lenses and wisdom to governance and leadership. I think about the circle on philanthropy that does deep work around reciprocity and settler Indigenous relations in the sector, I think about the Black governance and leadership project that these people who are already doing the work and bringing in that wisdom that we can uplift and learn from in terms of how to apply those justice-centered frameworks into our governance, but every organization needs to be doing that deep work for themselves because they all have, we all have different purposes, different histories, different communities that we engage with and such.

Kavita: And I think that's sort of a key point that a lot of this work is already being done. So I feel like sometimes when folks might hear about Reimagining Governance and rethinking about their governance, governance structure, it may seem like too big a task to take on, and they may not know where to start. And especially to sort of add that Indigenous or Racial Justice lens, which may or may not be that organization's expertise, or they may be in a different part of their learning journey with that. But as you said, there are leaders already doing this work. And that wisdom already exists within the sector. So if you want that information, it's there. And if you want that support, it's there. There are different frameworks that already exist, people just need to get going on the work.

Erin: Right, which is hard but necessary work.

Kavita: Yeah. I mean, amongst trying to actually have your organization's mission accomplished. I know, this feels like a project on top of that, but as you said, it's necessary for us to raise the bar on how the nonprofit sector approaches governance. It feels like that time is now, and it's sort of like we're past due. We should have already started this work. And if we haven't yet, we need to get going on it. 

With that being said, structural change is slow and no one's going to reimagine their governance system overnight. And it can be sort of a painful process. So could you give us some insights on the biggest challenges you're facing while you're managing this project? It's been a few years, so if you can sort of look back at when you started and where you are now? Because it's not all peachy. And we know, we want the end result. But what are those challenges you're facing as you're doing this work?

Erin: The project has been alive for a few years, I have been engaged with it, I think, maybe around three years. When I started, we were very much in the space of okay, we think we have a sense of this pressing issue but are we actually right? We've done some research, but we really need to take a pulse of how people feel in this sector. I joined during the very fun period where we were really just connecting with people connecting with nonprofits and asking them, does this feel like we're on the right track? What are the issues that you face? And so, I think, yeah, reflecting back, there are a couple of big challenges that emerge. But they are good challenges. And it's not bad that the challenges exist.

Kavita: Yeah, we don’t have to think of challenges as negative either.

Erin: Exactly. And I think that's really important to name because what we're trying to do is make new stuff. That's really hard and we're asking busy teams to stretch their brains on what could be possible in their work when they've been doing things how they've been doing it for however long. So that challenge of inertia is definitely there. And there are also those structural realities in the sector that will make those big changes challenging to implement, especially now for some organizations, and there are disproportionate impacts on how different nonprofits can carry out big change management stuff. Beyond those challenges, even if everything was totally awesome in this sector, it's still easier not to change anything about how you do stuff. So to some degree, there's this challenge of inertia. And, well this is how we've done things, nothing is drastically on fire. So why would we take the time to do this work?

Kavita: The status quo is the status quo for a reason. And it remains in place because it's a powerful structure and disrupting that status quo and creating a new status quo, it's years of work, and it's a lot of work. And as I said at the beginning of this podcast, there're many folks that benefit from the status quo as it stands. In this context governance specific, so why would they change that structure? It's working for them as it is right? And it's not enough to say, Oh, well, it's not taking Indigenous justice or Racial justice into account. And I think that's why the response sometimes can be what will diversify our board. Like that feels like, we're sort of good to go. It's like, wow.

Erin: And it's actionable. You can see it. So it feels like oh, maybe this is a win. And again, like nothing's wrong.

Kavita: No. Absolutely.

Erin: Yeah. It's just not putting all those eggs- diversity eggs?

Kavita: *chuckles* 

Erin: Yeah, in one basket.  I think, in response to that challenge, its, that's why our goal is not  70% of nonprofits have reimagined their governance, or used our tools. It's really about provoking that shift in thinking because thinking about something different, that's that long-term change. It's that mindset shift, that is the thing that can push other structural changes.

 And we were even shocked- in the past several months, we've been working alongside some various nonprofits in Ontario, we've been testing some of our thinking, some of our tools and such with these folks in spaces called Learning Labs, and when we started recruiting for the Learning Labs, early in 2021, still in the midst of COVID, and everything, just being so uncertain, challenging, emergent, we had so much interest from organizations that even though they were busy, and facing a very different new reality, being like, hey, we have this burning governance issue that we need to fix. They came being like, we see an opportunity to do things differently, we see an opportunity to apply some of the learnings that we've been taking out of this time, and applying that to how we do our governance. So we were pretty pleasantly surprised that the appetite was there. It's about those early ripples that will eventually lead to a wave. That's, that's how I feel better about that challenge.

Kavita: Oh, for sure. It's a step-by-step. Like you have to take step one before we can topple over systems that have been for a long time.

Erin: And it's kind of both, it's like, yes, the change is going to be slow to actually implement things and do things well, and with intentionality, and all that, but also, let's radically change how we think about governance right now. So it's kind of like holding both of those things. That makes me think of another challenge, which is just straight up the challenge of thinking differently about something that feels really fixed. And there, as I keep saying, there haven't been huge shifts in how we do governance work. Well, at least it's been pretty incremental. 

As I said, it's not easy to create new things from scratch. And that's also why the approach we're taking is not okay, we're gonna just make another model that we hope fits all 58,000 nonprofits and Ontario and beyond. But actually, figuring out how can nonprofits actually take the design of their governance into their own hands and use the experience and expertise that they have as people on that team to figure out what is going to work best for them? This really helped me think about what we are actually doing with Reimagining Governance. 

It's my favourite analogy because it has to do with playgrounds, there's a show called Abstract: The Art of Design, and when we honed in on design as sort of the fundamental thing to focus on with Reimagining Governance, I started thinking about how video games are like all of these different things that inform like, how do we move the world? So this one episode focuses on this toymaker, which is the best job, toy inventor. Their name is Castleman and they share about this playground revolution that was happening. I think it was sort of in the late 90s, early 2000s maybe where playgrounds both like public and in schools were going through this big thing that people wanted prettier and more interesting and cooler playgrounds. But what was happening is that they were all just sculptural changes. 

So for example, it's like a slide, but it's an event, or it's a swing set, but you swing on tires instead of a plank. So pretty much designing for the same kind of play, just making it look different. Not very revolutionary, not quite innovation. 

Kavita: Superficial change. 

Erin: Exactly. And that's sort of the connection to just thinking about, for example, diversifying boards. How can we structurally change this thing that inherently is more than just the people around the table? And so Castleman goes on to say that when you're thinking about revolutionizing something like changing something from its core, or not from its core, by really innovating what it is, what it looks like, you have to think about that core, what are the core functions or that core purpose that exist? And how else can they be facilitated? So I'll use the example of a slide Kavita. What if you were to think about what a slide does? What does it do?

Kavita: I mean, it takes you from one place to another, usually from top to bottom. There may be a bump or a turn in the middle.

Erin: Yes, like a momentary sense of falling or absence of momentum, right? So how else can that be facilitated? And so Castleman goes on to share different kinds of playground models where people are thinking about how else we can create that experience, that feeling and or those functions? And so they encourage us to think about asking what moments you want to design for. And I think that that's such an apt way of thinking about governance as well, is thinking about, what are we designing? What are those functions? They're more than just what we conventionally think of as board responsibilities, the functions of governance are actually pretty exciting. They're holding the strategic vision of the organization, thinking about its future and how it responds to risks. And that's not something that actually only has to be done by the board. In fact, our board essentially says, board directors must be assured that these things are being done. They don't have to control it. They don't have to dictate it. They might be involved in various ways, but it's all just about that assurance. So when we're thinking about governance, how can we really think about form following function and apply that to how we work? 

Kavita: That's a really great analogy. I feel like it can work in so many different contexts. Like, what are the moments you're designing for? And not just thinking about that superficial change. So now, for listeners who may not be super familiar with this project, you mentioned Learning Labs? Can you give a quick little summary of what Learning Labs are? And your work around that?

Erin: Yeah, for sure. So as I mentioned, when we affirmed that we were on the right track, saying we need to look at the design of governance, and we need to figure out ways to enable nonprofits to actually do governance differently, we knew that we couldn't just do another model. We couldn't just prescribe something new, right? 

Kavita: Replace yours with ours. *chuckles*

Erin: *chuckles* Yeah, exactly. So instead, we started to think about, okay, well, what's an approach or what's a journey that could be supported by various tools that nonprofits could undertake, and we started to co-create what that could look like with a lot of different nonprofit leaders, capacity builders, we've been referring to them as our governance champions, who really fed into, for example, the creation of the governance framework and the board essentials.

And when we came up with a, we think we have a reflective process that will do what we're hoping for, we also knew we couldn't just  do a traditional pilot. What we had was, it really needed to be built on more through lived experience. And so we reached out to organizations who were kind of ready to take on the amount of time and energy to do this work and started working alongside several of those nonprofits. 

We've been doing two-hour sessions every few weeks and each session exploring a different part of the process that we started working on. And they're Learning Labs because we're literally changing, updating, adding to your learning as you go. It's also so that we can share everything with the sector in the spring, which we're really excited to do. We knew that we just needed to really pressure test everything with real teams. So we're in the wrapping up space about to enter into the debriefing. What did we learn? How can we make this better before we share it? Yeah, it's a pretty exciting time. We've learned a lot and one of the things we know is going to be really critical to any kind of movement to reimagine governance is sharing stories and giving examples. So we're really excited to start sharing what we learned.

Kavita: That sounds really exciting. And for listeners who are interested in learning more about that you can stay tuned to ONN’s website. And our social will, of course, share updates about Reimagining Governance as they are available to all. As we wrap up, Erin, are there maybe three or so key points that we can hone in on that people can think about as they're seeking to reimagine governance, but also implement anti-racist practices of reciprocity within their board structures and overall leadership team? Yes. 

Erin: I will share some musings and certainly say that these are not a checklist, but rather, here's some stuff to think about. So the first, as I've continued to say, is just expanding the perspective. I'm considering who else has decision-making power or influence. Some of our early, early work, we identified an ecosystem where we actually demonstrate that there are many factors and people who influence governance like external internal, their systems-level organizationally. So expanding the perspective and really including that larger web in anti-racism and anti-oppression work. I think that's really key. Not seeing governance work as just separate from equity work and separate from leadership work. 

The second is, it's probably a difficult one, or a challenging one, just knowing the demands on the sector and its workers, but spending time reflecting on and exploring and naming the governance culture of your organization. There's often work done on organizational culture, but not specifically governance culture, and that actually really significantly shapes how governance work is done. It's like those gray areas like how you make decisions, who do you value? How do you assess risks? How do you negotiate conflict? These are all driven by those deeper mindsets, and that is, again, very much tied into equity and justice work. So there's that. 

And finally, just thinking about reciprocity. Everything here sounds so big, but when you boil it down, it's about those relationships. It's about that intentionality. And the fact that it's ongoing work, that won't ever be done. But looking at it from this more expensive view and doing the work of asking those different questions. I think starting there allows for a really different possibility, like a horizon of possibilities to be totally cheesy, than just limiting conversations to, all right, let's diversify our board.

Kavita: The go-to solution.

Erin: Yeah. 

Kavita: What I've learned in the time that I've been on and the little time that we've gotten to spend together discussing this project is that it's not meant to be a guide. At the end of this project, it's not like there'll be a How to reimagine governance, take these five steps. It's a lot of what you've mentioned, about supporting organizations to ask different questions. Ask bold questions, ask smarter questions, ask different questions that they've asked before. And I think that's important for people to take away is that the goal of this project is not to dictate like you said, it's not to replace the structure you have with a new structure that we've created. It's about guiding the process of what's going to work for you and for your organization because it's going to be unique, there isn't going to be a one-size-fits-all. And I think that's why it's wonderful that we're going to share what we've learned through the Learning Labs because if people can see the process that other organizations have been through, it gives them some insight into the process and what they may be embarking upon in the future.

Erin: Yeah, yeah, for sure. And to give multiple entry points. Not every organization is going to be ready to go through all the things that happened in the Learning Lab. But could they have an intentional conversation about their culture and how it impacts how they make decisions? Yeah, probably.

Kavita: Thank you, Erin. Thank you for the work that you do on this project and in the sector. And thank you to our listeners for tuning into this episode. I'm your host, Kavita, and as mentioned previously, Yami will be joining us in a future episode. We hope that you'll join us as we keep digging into the issues that matter to the nonprofit sector. Make sure to share, rate, and subscribe so you're the first to know when new episodes are live.