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Does your nonprofit board need a chief governance officer (CGO)? Or is it a function that’s better addressed across the entire board? As nonprofits face increasingly complex challenges, some nonprofit boards are designating chief governance officers, in hopes of making it easier for organizational leadership to take action. 

The pros and cons of appointing a CGO, was the topic for discussion at On Board: Boardroom Debates, a new virtual series hosted by the Rustandy Center of Social Sector Innovation where nonprofit board members, Booth alumni and students came together to discuss challenging issues. 

Rustandy Center executive director Caroline Grossman ‘03 was joined by Dorri McWhorter, president and CEO of the YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago and Rustandy Center nonprofit engagement executive in residence. Ali Galloway, Rustandy Center senior assistant director for social sector engagement programs, facilitated the conversation. The virtual event’s attendees, including high-level board members and several chief governance officers, also joined into the hourlong discussion.

Here are the main takeaways from the discussion:

Skip the one-size-fits-all approach
While a CGO can benefit some larger or more established nonprofits, it’s possible that creating a separate role can stretch other nonprofit boards too thin, says McWhorter. “It’s about being flexible and understanding about what the organization needs based on where they are in their growth stage and the life cycle of the organization,” she says. “There’s a drawback to building too much infrastructure that doesn’t get maintained or gets distracting.”

Create a complementary role
In some organizations, creating a CGO role can be a benefit but only with the proper internal structures in place, says Grossman. She suggests having a complementary role within the nonprofit, similar to how a board treasurer can work together with the nonprofit’s chief financial officer on some issues. “There should be a parallel role between the board and organization,” she says. “Those folks should work together, but have distinct industry roles.”

Focus on functional expertise 
In some cases, accountability can simply be shared across the nonprofit board and internal organization rather than delegated to one board member. “How do we make sure the governance doesn’t get lost is the real issue that’s trying to get addressed,” McWhorter says. In many instances that there’s not a need to designate a CGO. Instead, it’s important to consider governance as a function that can be shared across board members, she adds.

Even for those not appointing their own CGO, it’s important to understand that governance is an integral part of board leadership, adds Grossman. “Governance needs to be critical and it needs to be someone’s responsibility and it could be a committee responsibility,” she says.

Be mindful of how fundraising impacts the board 
Creating a separate CGO can help maintain a focus on effective governance. And it’s especially critical during times when board members pivot to address immediate fundraising needs, which can overshadow other issues on the board, according to some attendees. Oftentimes, issues of governance can fall to the bottom of the list when compared to more pressing financial considerations.

Create alliances to become an effective CGO

Someone stepping into a newly created CGO role needs to consider how to liaison with other board members, especially the board president. For some less seasoned CGOs, it can be more difficult to push initiatives forward when the mission of more senior board members does not align, according to attendees. 
(Recently published research investigating if a new chief governance officer role would help ensure the board meets its obligations was conducted by the Center for Social Sector Leadership at the University of California Berkeley’s Haas School of Business and featured in a Stanford Social Innovation Review article that attendees were asked to read.) 

To learn more about Rustandy Center’s upcoming On Board: Boardroom Debates and other events, visit us here


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