In the Carver model of board governance, known as Policy Governance, the model’s authors make much out of the concepts of Initial Authority and Final Authority for the board to exercise.
Boards often rightly describe their role as being the final authority, using terms like “the buck stops here,” and “we are the ones ultimately responsible.” This is quite true, and boards that forget this are reminded when things go amiss or the organization slides into stagnancy.
As true as the concept of the board as final authority is (or in some membership systems, the members or the congregation), exercising authority as final authority only, as the last action in the decision-making sequence, will significantly reduce the organization’s capacity to carry out its mission, if not completely remove its capacity to take action to fulfill its goals.
If the board is the final authority in sequence, then staff always have to run to the board with all kinds of detailed proposals, which then the board reacts to in order to process the information. This typically leads to proposals receiving the dissection treatment, and staff often come away frustrated that big new ideas get dismantled and reassembled, but poorly, in committee or board meetings.
When the board acts as the initial authority, it can shape the policies and approach to new projects, short-lived opportunities, and expansion of vision. It also will increase efficiency. By stating clearly beforehand what the values are, what the goals are, and what the priorities are, with clearly defined board and staff roles and limitations on what cannot be done and how reporting should happen, the staff are then free to operate within those constraints and be as efficient and as innovative as the policies and constraints allow. This allows for staff to use their expertise to make decisions and engage opportunities as they arise, rather than taking everything back to the board for final approval. The board still monitors performance, but only to assure compliance with what it has already said. This way, the organization is empowered to solve the big problems for which it was formed in the first place.
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