This latest learning adventure has arrived as I am serving on a board of a local nonprofit that introduced me to some key governance guidance that I, regretfully, never knew was out there.

I am considering how, with governance, a group of peers become responsible owner-representatives, exercising authority over activities they will never completely see, toward goals they cannot fully measure, through jobs and disciplines they will never master themselves.

I am now wondering how a board fulfills its own accountability while not, at the same time, infringing unnecessarily on the prerogatives of management.

And even when board members among themselves disagree, there is a limited time for the task. There is an unending stream of organizational details demanding inspection — yet tough governance decisions have to be made.

This governance “stuff” holds true in business, nonprofit and governmental bodies, though the typical flaws differ some from one setting to the other. So perhaps you can find yourself in this learning adventure of governance among the many “hats” you wear.

A body of work simply called “Policy Governance” by John Carver and Miriam Carver is our path of departure from status-quo, “go-with-the-flow” governance on boards. It makes new sense of the board-staff relationships, planning, evaluation and all aspects of the board job.

Here follows a summary of the 16-page classic document.

The board job: It is the board’s responsibility to govern; the board has a commensurate authority to govern. Individual board members do not. That is, whatever authority is legitimately wielded by a board is wielded by the board as a group. Hence, a CEO is bound by what the board says, but never by what any board member says.

Existing on behalf of some ownership: Boards rarely “own” an organization themselves. They ordinarily are a microcosm of a larger ownership. The owners may be legal owners (stockholders for an equity corporation) or have more of a “moral” ownership (the whole community in the case of a local social service organization). But in any event, the board speaks on their behalf, a task that requires: (a) knowing who the owners are and what their desires are; and (b) being able to distinguish owners from customers (clients, students, patients) and other stakeholder groups.

Achieves what it should: In order to lead, boards must learn that services, programs and curricula have no value except as they produce the desired ends. Therefore, boards are well advised to look past these operational means and on to the ends that really matter.

I am grateful to the colleague who turned me onto this work, and I encourage all to read more and join me in learning best practice in governance by accessing the Carvers’ materials found at

Amy Greil is community, natural resource and economic development educator for the Kenosha County University of Wisconsin-Extension.