Part of my learning from more than twenty years working in and around charities, churches and other change agents is that governance matters. By governance here I mean both the formal structure of a group, and how decisions – particularly major decisions – get made. Governance particularly matters when a group is under internal or external stress. At times of profound group crisis or opportunity, it suddenly becomes of stark importance who has the power to act, to move, to speak, to hire, to dismiss, to spend, to merge, or to close. Conversely, when times are good and everything looks rosy, it can be easy to overlook ambiguity or stasis or latent conflict or absence of governance: there are always more urgent demands on our time.
In my work as a grant officer, I often encourage grantees to pay attention to governance issues – putting in place regular recruitment of new trustees, for example. It’s not always the easiest and most popular advice to give, and I can feel like a boring pedant, particularly when the organisation is otherwise thriving and delivering great results. However, I know from experience that when suddenly income drops, or the chief executive leaves, and the board has to step up to the task, it is too late then to be thinking of matters like trustee recruitment.
So far, so much voluntary sector orthodoxy. However, does any of this still matter when a social change organisation has no staff, no office, perhaps even no money? If a group of friends meet in a café or pub and decide, in their spare time, to start an online campaign, will they really talk about governance structures? Is that what we’d want activists to be doing? Probably not. But what if that campaign goes on within days or weeks to raise £1m for the cause, or lead to a mass consumer boycott, or a large street protest, or a change in the law?
In the age of the hashtag, do we need new forms of flexible, instant, downloadable governance? Or is that simply inviting decisions that may have far-reaching implications to be taken hastily and badly? Or is the whole concept of governance now archaic, belonging to a past of slow and formal committee minutes and meetings, not the present day of endlessly flexible and instant groups, docs, feeds and apps?
I have no answers to these questions, and others who are deeper in the rough and tumble of social change are probably better placed to comment. However, let me tentatively offer some signposts from my own perspective.
However nascent, informal or fluid a group is, power is allocated, taken, shared, negotiated. It may be formalised in constitutions and policies, and it will almost certainly fall into patterns and unwritten norms. Formal structures can be used to control and dominate, or to include and equalise. Informal structures can be more accessible, or more alienating, than written rules. If an organisation or group does not pay any conscious attention to governance and decision-making structures, it is likely that wider social inequalities will play out, with power and leadership accruing to those who happen to be white or male, say, or from a particular social class or background, rather than being shared more equally, or assigned on the basis of skills and experience, or structured to be user-led.
The benchmark is rising on honesty and transparency.
As the transaction costs on the gathering, sorting, storing and publishing of information have fallen, simple information being unavailable looks increasingly anomalous, bordering on suspicious. If I can find out in a matter of seconds what your office building looks like from the street, it seems odd if I can’t see who is on your board, or find out who pays the rent. Ensuring basic information about governance is publicly available is a minimum. For some organisations and movements, complete openness of membership and content is becoming a norm. However, that may be easier in the context of, say, designing tools for digital democracy than offering support to problem gamblers. There are important and legitimate debates to be had about the right balance between openness and privacy, but there is no doubt about the current direction of travel.
Good governance is evolving governance
As a grant officer, I understand that at the beginning of a social change there is probably just a person or two with an idea and a passion. That’s a start. I also understand that an organisational form may change in the few months between an initial application and a grant, and perhaps change again as the work evolves and expands. While new organisations may initially have weak governance, they are also more likely to be actively thinking about and wrestling with structure and purpose. In some ways it is easier for a long-established charity to become complacent, and to mistake the rituals and trappings of board meetings for good governance. It is notable that in the new charity governance code, which is aimed at existing charities, the word ‘review’ appears in six out of the seven sections. The code is helpfully available in versions for large and small charities. I wonder whether we need an even more basic version for new initiatives, when people may be wrestling with some very fundamental questions indeed, like “Is this an organisation?”, let alone “Is this a charity?”.
My hunch is that while a lot has changed in how change happens, some things stay the same. There have always been innovators and consolidators, rule breakers and makers, inspirers and organisers, those who work best with the head, with the heart, with the hands. In new social movements, community groups and charities, some will pay significant – perhaps even excessive – attention to process and structures; others will find this tedious and frustrating, and skate over important questions of power and control. The best initiatives will pay enough, but not too much, attention to governance, relative to their stage of development, resources and the work they are trying to do. Not every social movement needs to become an institution. After all, sometimes a hashtag is just a hashtag.