Trigger events and change agents: how non-profit boards improve their governance

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  • 1 Indiana University-Bloomington, , USA
  • | 2 Nonprofit Board Governance Consultant, , USA
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Despite active research on the performance of boards of directors, very little scholarship exists on how they intentionally recognise and act on the need for governance change. This gap has resulted in weak conceptual guidance for researchers and practitioners alike who are interested in change management. This article employs a multiple case study phenomenological analysis of member-serving organisations based in the United States that achieved substantive change at the board level, sometimes reshaping their boards and cultures in profound ways. Focused on the catalysts, agents and processes of governance change, the findings generally support the prevailing contingency theory perspective by describing patterns of change, stakeholder behaviour and goals that varied considerably from case to case. A change management lens is weakly supported in finding limited patterns in how leaders made change happen. A discussion follows of other potential conceptual lenses that may help explain successful strategic change management in non-profit boards.

Abstract

Despite active research on the performance of boards of directors, very little scholarship exists on how they intentionally recognise and act on the need for governance change. This gap has resulted in weak conceptual guidance for researchers and practitioners alike who are interested in change management. This article employs a multiple case study phenomenological analysis of member-serving organisations based in the United States that achieved substantive change at the board level, sometimes reshaping their boards and cultures in profound ways. Focused on the catalysts, agents and processes of governance change, the findings generally support the prevailing contingency theory perspective by describing patterns of change, stakeholder behaviour and goals that varied considerably from case to case. A change management lens is weakly supported in finding limited patterns in how leaders made change happen. A discussion follows of other potential conceptual lenses that may help explain successful strategic change management in non-profit boards.

Introduction

Boards of directors of corporations and non-profit organisations are under intense public pressure to perform their fiduciary duties well. One result is a formidable amount of research on the performance of boards. Yet, little of this scholarship has focused on the actual dynamics of board improvement. Much of the research only captures governance characteristics (for example, size and structure) at one point in time. But boards are not static entities. They reshape themselves as their membership changes and as they address internal and external challenges and opportunities. Experts suggest that the non-profit and corporate sectors alike could benefit from more research into board dynamics and internal processes, including how to handle the conflicts that may emerge with change efforts (Reid and Turbide, 2012; Harrison and Murray, 2015).

Yet, change theories have been rarely employed, as governance scholarship generally favours other lenses such as agency or resource dependency theory (Miller-Millesen, 2003). Some exceptions exist and, when successful, a focus on board processes helps to break down the complex nature of organisational governance into possibly more achievable components, potentially establishing stronger causal arguments between the parts and the whole that have eluded non-profit governance scholarship (Bradshaw et al, 1992; Zhu et al, 2016). A lens focused on the process of governance change may also be helpful in reconciling the two dominant normative perspectives on organisational leadership, in which either boards or the executive are considered to be responsible for organisational performance. Finally, a lens focused on ‘what works’ offers practical value to non-profit leaders, including possibly removing the mystique of successful non-profit stories when it turns out that even successful organisations struggle with change management before arriving at the desired outcome.

Literature review: applying theories of change management to non-profit governance

An active and diverse literature on change (from sociological, business, psychological and other perspectives) demonstrates that organisational change takes many forms. In the context of governance, board improvements may be incremental (minor bylaw changes), up the scale to truly transformational (wholesale alterations to the way the board operates, its membership and its scope of authority). The literature also suggests that change efforts have a high likelihood of failure, but that sufficient support and resources improve success (By, 2005; Balogun and Hailey, 2008). Longstanding theory also notes that a crucial element in supporting successful change is understanding and effectively addressing human reactions to change (Argyris, 1990).

One crucial idea on which change theorists have divergent opinions is whether change management can be deterministic or even rational, in the sense that events can be anticipated and lead to planned responses (Burnes, 2004). Burnes (2004) argues in favour of a view of strategic change management as both continuous and non-deterministic. Successful leaders must therefore develop a permanent capacity to adapt to changing circumstances – Lewin (1943: 172) describes this capacity as a certain ‘culture’.

Very little research applies these ideas to non-profit governance. Generally, strategic change management has been researched more extensively in commercial firms than in voluntary sector settings (Mento et al, 2002; Rosenbaum et al, 2017). However, non-profit leaders must know how to respond when they see a need to improve but encounter dissension from stakeholders. And the different legal contexts matter. One of the most challenging aspects of understanding non-profit governance is the presence of more complex double- and triple-bottom-line missions, in addition to the diversity of missions, revenue streams and stakeholders influencing non-profit behaviour (Bradshaw, 2009; Ostrower and Stone, 2010). Bradshaw (2009) suggests applying a structural contingency theory approach, to address the diversity in non-profit board characteristics and dynamics. Contingency theory provides a valuable foil to more universalistic (that is, normative) theories of organisation that suggest there is ‘one best way’ to organise for high performance (Donaldson, 2001).

Non-profit researchers have also employed Lewin’s (1943) theory of planned change to understand non-profit board self-improvements but conclude that boards are generally more concerned with good internal relations than with profound structural improvements (Brudney and Murray, 1998; Harrison and Murray, 2015). A small amount of additional scholarship has focused on the dynamics of non-profit board change, observing its value to innovation (Reid and Turbide, 2012) and how an emphasis on positive change can generate trust among stakeholders (Rosenbaum et al, 2017).

In sum, this literature review suggests that there is value in paying more attention to board change processes. Because so little is known about where and how change processes originate – but also because this question is particularly valuable to the practitioner eager to initiate a change process – the research questions posed in this study focus on (a) where the board change originates, (b) how it unfolds and (c) who leads it. A question of particular interest is whether the indeterminate and conditional dynamics of boards found in previous research will make it difficult to identify patterns of board change. And if patterns are found, do the particular circumstances offer sufficient practical guidance? Contingency theory may contribute if it helps to account for structural contingencies that drove board change (for example, did the expected leaders take the expected change management roles?) or who made the decisions. However, in direct contrast to contingency theories, which tend to focus on outcomes such as maximising organisational performance, this study’s interest is on the process of change itself (for example, how did the process unfold?). Applying these change management and contingent frameworks together allows us to understand whether board change can be understood as a deterministic and predictable process.

Data and methods

This article is based on a multiple case study design (Yin, 2013) built on interviews and some organisational documents volunteered by study participants. Phenomenological analysis is employed to interpret events through the lived experiences of the people involved (Groenewald, 2004). Data collection involved six stages. (1) A consultation with academic and professional governance experts on the study design, a literature review and a pilot focus group to test interview questions were conducted. (2) Subjects were then drawn from multiple sources. The primary source was a 2013 nationally representative governance study published by the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE) Foundation (Gazley and Bowers, 2013), which produced extensive benchmarking data on board performance.1 From this study the top quartile (N = 424) of respondents was contacted, determined by how strongly executive directors had rated their board’s performance.2 Then, an additional reputational list of 182 organisations with strong boards was developed from referrals from personal networks,3 alternate lists and a literature review of news stories about successful board change.

The study’s focus only on high-performing boards that achieved governance changes was deliberate, as the intention is to help practitioners understand how governance change can be achieved and to help scholars understand how governance success can be theorised. Methodologists argue that deliberate selection bias, including a focus on ‘what works’, is a valid choice when little is understood about a phenomenon generally – so a narrower lens is warranted. An additional rationale is when a researcher is interested in a phenomenon that necessarily narrows the eligible subjects – in this case, ‘achieved governance change’ is the necessary condition, so the research question will only address the board practices that realised that change (Collier, 1995; Dion 2003). But it must be noted that this choice also necessarily narrows the validity of any findings by making them applicable only to successful cases. ‘Survivorship bias’ should always be noted as a limitation on research (Gazley and Guo, 2020).

(3) The sample was then asked to participate if their reported success had involved ‘transformational change’ at the board level (defined to respondents as ‘practices and strategies boards and staff had used to achieve profound cultural or governance change’). This step allowed the study to focus on the full experience of the change process rather than on minor bylaw changes or other insignificant events.

(4) In total, 106 individuals representing 85 organisations responded and participated in one to two structured telephone interviews. A total of 53 interviews involved the executive director/chief executive officer (CEO) alone; the remainder involved another senior manager or past board members involved in the change process. The involvement of additional respondents and/or second interviews helped to ensure that those with historical recall of the events were included. All respondents were serving in their executive or governance role with the organisation when the changes occurred, offering sufficient certainty of accurate respondent recall.

Demographically, these respondents represented member-serving associations holding 501(c)(3) or (c)(6) tax statuses, and serving mainly state, regional or national (US) organisations, with a small number serving international memberships. A wide diversity of missions and fields was included: respondents represented organisations with trade, professional, fraternal, financial, scientific, technological, academic, medical, legal, advocacy, industrial, educational, public sector and faith-based missions. The respondents included an almost equal balance of men (54%) and women (46%).

(5) Interview questions were developed using phenomenological analysis principles in order to capture, without prior bias, the full ‘who-what-why’ of the board changes that occurred. The research questions were tested in advance through a focus group:

  • What was the governance problem your association faced and what change needed to happen?

  • What were the catalysts or turning points?

  • Who were the change agents?

  • How much time has the change process taken?

  • What resources, qualities or strategies were crucial to success?

  • What specific strategic tools did your association make use of?

  • What was most challenging? What obstacles did you face?

Respondents were interviewed by telephone for between 30 and 60 minutes following an emailed request to participate in the study, and receipt of informed consent documentation. All interviewees agreed to be identified and to verify but not modify interview transcripts. All interviewees were offered confidentiality.

(6) After the interviews were transcribed, additional verification of themes and identification of patterns occurred via focus groups involving 29 members of ASAE working in the Washington, DC and Chicago, IL areas who responded to an open invitation. These focus groups helped to clarify and interpret common themes and experiences. Full transcripts of interviews and focus groups were analysed by hand and with NVivo qualitative software to identify key themes and response patterns. Analytic techniques included coding and categorisation, pattern matching and process tracing (to identify irregular patterns and other counterfactuals). Given the enormous amount of normative (that is, prescriptive) literature about the expectations of non-profit boards of directors, these strategies help to avoid assumptions about the ‘best way’ for boards to improve themselves.

Limitations to these analytic strategies should be noted, such as a reliance on participant recollections of past events, some participant self-selection and same-source bias. Additionally, in some instances, respondents had succeeded an executive director who was forced out by non-performance or some other need for change and therefore represent the ‘winning side’ of the change process, a situation that might bias their narrative. Finally, the choice to interview only organisational leaders introduces a specific positionality, although this approach is consistent with the idiographic (person-centred) focus of phenomenological research (Gill, 2014).

However, the overall strength of the organisations these participants represented was independently verified by finding that 72% ranked in the top quartile of board performance per the 2013 study. Additionally, the veracity of narratives was controlled in part by allowing respondents to approve but not edit their narratives after the fact.4 Finally, a deliberately non-challenging approach to the interview questions was used, to encourage ‘storytelling’ in their own words and the safe ‘sense making’ that derives therein (Wilson, 2019).

Findings

The analysis revealed that participants described four stages or elements to the change process: initial catalysing events; the change agents involved; outcomes or ways in which boards transformed themselves; and the dynamics of the change process.

Catalysts and causes of governance change

The critical finding is that actual catalysts for a governance change stemmed sometimes from anticipated problems but also from unforeseen issues, most often internal to the organisation. In certain cases, respondents started governance reform with no more than a vague concern about general organisational performance. The organisational problems they observed did not necessarily point to problems within the board. They recalled; “There were problems. You would hear things.” They described “organisational misalignment”, problems “brewing under the surface” and boards that were exhausted or seemed to be spinning their wheels. There were constituent concerns about growth, relevancy, professionalisation, financial health and so on.

In other cases, respondents had a clearer sense that the problems rested in the board, although not necessarily with an understanding of how to fix them. They described decisions that were being made “in back rooms” or unproductive relationships with collaborating organisations. The most common theme was boards that were focused on non-strategic activities or boards that were not nimble enough to act on new strategic opportunities. For example, respondents described boards that spent their time on “administrivia”, operational matters, issues that were not in their purview and past events.

In many but not all cases, a catalysing event helped to initiate governance changes. Large-scale change can occur through what Isabella (1992) describes as ‘trigger events’. These catalysing events not only highlight problems but also may precipitate new behaviours as those involved interpret and adapt to the situation. A pattern analysis of these responses (see Table 1) suggests that both internal and external events served as these ‘shocks to the system’ and they occurred at four levels: at the regulatory, organisational, board and staff levels. Each trigger event introduced in turn possible challenges and solutions, as described by respondents (although not all could connect the dots or understand how to ameliorate the situation at the outset).

Table 1:

Trigger events leading to governance change

Trigger events leading to governance changeExamples offered by respondentsReported negative outcomesReported strategies for success
Regulatory levelChange to state non-profit law forces a bylaws change.Board caught by surprise. Regional sections resist changing bylaws to conform to national board. Members resist sudden end to shared governance.Built awareness of legislative trends and of Model Non-profit Corporation Act.
Organisational levelFiscal crisis, rapid growth, rapid decline, scandal, merger, turnover, new accreditation requirements.Challenges of dealing with a crisis while addressing governance change.Ensured there are clearly defined roles and responsibilities for crisis management (that is, organisational spokesperson, common messaging), developed a two-track system for dealing with both crisis and change.
Board levelMajor policy disagreement, lawsuit.Board factions, dissension.Active communication, use of outside facilitation.
Board initiates change. Board hires CEO as a change agent.Staff resistance to new ideas.Communication, invested in professional staff development.
Staff levelCEO departure, health crisis, criminal behaviour.Board or other staff respond to fill the ‘leadership vacuum’, get in the weeds, power grabs, confusion.Predetermined emergency succession plan in place.
Current CEO initiates change.Board resistance to new ideas.Board education, scouted for new board members as change agents.

As noted, some trigger events were real crises: single respondents reported lawsuits, the death of an executive director, embezzlement and other traumatic events. In other instances, the triggering event was external and political, such as a change in accreditation standards or state incorporation laws, which forced a board to restructure. Other catalysing events were gentler – nudges in a new direction. Some occurred not as traumas but as opportunities for growth. Several respondents described a common theme of a growing organisation led initially by founding, operational or working boards where representational needs had not evolved with growth. In other instances, a simple question about ‘redistricting’, term limits or membership representation started the kind of generative conversation described by Isabella (1992), leading to an opportunity to ask larger questions about their leadership approach. The CEO of a credit union recalled: “Members were already having a conversation about ‘redistricting’. I said: ‘Don’t you really mean governing?’ … So we started to have [that] conversation. [We started with] the low-hanging fruit … It helped to foster the culture we needed for [the actual] governance change later.”

When they did occur, crises did not necessarily make the change process easier, but sometimes opened the door for a useful conversation. One respondent explained: “When I joined [the organisation] they were in the middle of a significant financial crisis. The upside of it meant that they were willing to listen to me because there were some emergency measures that had to be taken.” By contrast, another offered: “We were lucky we were not in a crisis situation. We had recognised the need for change before change was desperately needed. It’s harder to enact change when it’s forced upon you.”

Change agents and leaders

Respondents reported a diversity of change agents: the individuals or groups responsible for initiating the conversations that led to governance improvements. Displayed in Table 2, in frequency order, governance change was initiated by (1) the board as a whole or a subgroup of board members, (2) executive directors/CEOs, (3) an executive director and board working together, (4) the board chair or president or (5) portions of the organisation’s membership.

Table 2:

Change agents and their experiences

Change agentExamples of respondent experiencesReported frequency
Board of directorsA board recognised the need for change as a whole; a cohort of board members ran on a ‘change ticket’; new board members with prior governance experience pressured other members for change.33%
CEO/executive directorNewly hired executive directors brought new knowledge and perspectives with them, recognising the need for board change before the board did.23%
Joint board/ staff actionChange began in joint discussions between the full board and staff leadership; staff and board chairs agreed jointly that change was needed.21%
ChairLongstanding board leaders acted out of frustration; new board leaders acted when they brought in new knowledge and perspectives; board members in leadership roles recognised the need for board change before other members did.19%
MembershipMembers responded to a crisis by demanding board change; members demanded new benefits as an organisation grew, triggering a realisation that the board model was inadequate for a growing organisation; members pressured the board for change out of concerns about organisational direction; a changing member demographic pressured a board to reinvent itself.4%

The actors who took the leadership in initiating change were in some instances different from the actors responsible for implementing change. For example, boards might deliberately hire a new executive director with the goal of hiring a change agent for the organisation. Or executive directors who were not explicitly hired as a change agent initiated conversations with their board about governance change anyway.

The results reflect the contingent nature of governance and organisational circumstances as described by Bradshaw (2009) and Ostrower and Stone (2010). Not only does no single stakeholder group dominate, but also within each group of actors the change process may begin for various reasons and with varying goals. The diversity in change agents was also reflected in the actions they took, since their choices varied.

The findings also suggest a balanced role between executive staff and board members. Many scholars have noted the central role that executive staff play in promoting good governance (although, contrary to commercial corporate governance, few non-profit executives serve as voting board members) (Gazley and Bowers, 2013). Here, executive involvement in change management is found and supports Herman and Heimovics’ (1990: 171) argument about the ‘psychological centrality’ of the executive director to organisational success. But this study also supports an alternative perspective in that corporate boards can serve as change agents in the absence of executive influence (Goodstein and Boeker, 1991). In 100% of cases described here, even when executives led the process, the change did not occur until the majority of the board also recognised the need for it.

Outcomes of governance change

This study was focused on the process of change so a full inventory of outcomes was not captured. However, the lengthy interviews offered plentiful information to draw three initial patterns worthy of further exploration.

A near-universal focus on bylaws change to serve members more strategically. All significant governance changes described by respondents involved modifications to the organisational bylaws and board policies. Respondents generally rationalised the change as a way to improve member services, a finding reflective of agency theory. The specific how of better member service was most frequently focused on a better strategic orientation, such as becoming more nimble, representative, entrepreneurial and/or knowledgeable.

More than 90% of respondents described changes to at least one of the following governance elements:

  • bylaws, policies and procedures (to facilitate quicker and more flexible board action);

  • board member eligibility, roles and responsibilities (mainly to reduce reliance on constituency-based boards and achieve new knowledge, skills or representation, and then to focus the work of the board on strategic rather than operational activities);

  • the structure of board meetings (to free up board time for more strategic activities or to improve the board’s culture);

  • committee structure and roles (to increase flexibility or to delegate more board tasks to the committee level).

Form did not follow function. While respondents shared a similar interest in building a more strategic board, they reshaped their boards in divergent and somewhat contradictory ways. For example, while most respondents reported shrinking the size of their board, a few increased board size to gain more governing capacity. In addition, while all sought more efficient use of board time, a few ended up with more frequent board meetings, which they explained was necessary to maintain the pace of change.

Unforeseen secondary impacts. Respondents encountered secondary outcomes and impacts, many of them unforeseen and not all of them benign. Respondents reported generating new benefits for themselves, including more efficient and effective decision making, greater board and staff collegiality and a stronger focus on goals brought about by a better alignment of mission, culture and strategy. Some were able to hire better staff who would otherwise have been reluctant to work with a weak board. Many reported a healthier financial status. A number of respondents also described how their efforts built an internal culture that was more trusting, collegial, entrepreneurial and/or strategic.

Yet in other instances, respondents reported finding that growth and improvement offered new challenges, although they also noted that their stronger expertise in change management and/or stronger board culture gave them better tools for dealing with those challenges. One respondent observed, for example, that a board could still choose to rest on its laurels after a successful change effort: “[T]he board can sometimes be complacent. Our solution has been to feed them outside literature so that they understand the external environment [and continue to behave strategically].”

Dynamics of the change process

Turning last to the actual process of change, two themes dominated. First were the challenges and resistance that change agents encountered as they worked with members and the board to initiate a governance change process, which took on a decidedly psychological dimension in the majority of cases. Yet, despite the diversity in how they experienced change resistance, change agents described similar patterns of response, relying most frequently on experimenting with different tactics to promote stakeholders’ receptivity to change.

Experiencing resistance to governance change. Freiwirth (2014) has observed how emotionally challenging the process of change can be for board members. The cases in the present study reported similarly strong emotional reactions. Asked to describe the greatest challenge they encountered, a third of all respondents answered: “managing the emotions of (board members or other stakeholders)”. An additional 23% mentioned capacity-related challenges such as insufficient time and labour, while 17% observed how challenging it was to change organisational culture.

But in contrast to Freiwirth’s focus on board members, this study found that change resistors (just like change agents) came from all ranks – members, staff, board members, clients or any internal or external stakeholder who is heavily vested in current practices and cultures. For example, one respondent recounted that “some elements [of the membership] saw ‘conspiracy’ and thought the board was trying to hijack the organisation”.

Behaviouralists have observed that as humans we vary in our cognitive and affective ability to adapt to change (Piderit, 2000; Bovey and Hede, 2001). In fact, the decision to resist can be illogical. Humans can grow accustomed to any habitualised behaviour, fearing the ambiguity that comes with change. In other words, stakeholders can resist planned change efforts even when they may benefit from them.

These theories suggest that, in the context of non-profit governance change, board responses will vary and members will not necessarily receive change efforts positively, even those intended to facilitate their work. Unfortunately, most research on resistance to organisational change focuses on employee responses, and less is understood about how leaders themselves experience change resistance (Piderit, 2000). Moreover, a longstanding dominant perspective on non-profit governance addresses board development as a group process and overlooks the need for an understanding of how individual board members may support or undermine group processes (Chait et al, 1993). A focus on leaders’ embrace of change is important when one considers they may differ from employees in their emotional attachment to the organisation, a factor Hameed et al (2019) have found to be influential in predicting employee openness to change.

In this analysis, affective responses to proposed governance change followed two patterns: a predictable but general human reaction to the ambiguity that change brings, but also at times a recognition that the changes represented a real loss of power or prerogatives. In one example, a change effort led the old governing body to decide they should vote themselves out and have the membership elect a new slate. In another, senior board members took the need for change personally, “like it was a referendum on them”. Given the emphasis in the current board literature not only on group decision making but also on the more structural considerations of board building (term limits, election criteria and so on), it can be easy for non-profit leaders to underestimate any single board member’s reactions to a potential role change. One respondent observed: “Dealing with … the structural and policies issues … was quite easy. But giving up roles – that was not.”

Addressing resistance. Based on thematic coding, strategies for addressing resistance to change involved creating a better change process and, to a lesser extent, incrementally growing political support for change. The first strategy was quite important in most of these cases; the second was used intermittently to encourage change resistors to commit. Successful change processes involved a number of strategies. Respondents described applying various forms of appreciative inquiry and organisational learning to facilitate the governance change. Consistent with isomorphic principles, some brought in consultants who could aid this process with “best practices” evidence from other organisations. One noted the value of giving board members “as much access as we could to how other associations did things”. Appreciative inquiry can, for example, help by connecting the dots between organisational problems and a need for a governance change.

Second, the pace of change was frequently and deliberately slowed to encourage buy-in from resistant stakeholders. In some cases, the result was a much lengthier process of change management than leaders anticipated. But it was necessary because “people who were not part of the [change] process could not make the leap” as quickly as the change agents. Some executive directors reported having to wait for “the board to catch up” with their recommendations, or for board leadership to change. One board brought their bylaws proposal three times to the membership before they gained a vote of approval.

In addition, one of the more noteworthy findings from these cases are the efforts taken by change agents to ensure stakeholders were treated with courtesy and respect. One explained: “It wasn’t angering [board members] that worried us but hurting them. Change is frightening. … We were determined we would take it slowly to do the least harm.” While some executive directors might take this approach to preserve their jobs, the practice was more widespread than pragmatism could explain by itself, including in cases where it could have been legislatively possible to remove the hardliners. For example, one recounted: “We said to the [opposing board members]: ‘You will get the rest of your term. You will be respected.’”

When offering change resistors more time and evidence was not sufficient, governance change agents resorted to political tactics such as coalition building. Governance changes sometimes involved substantial and often prolonged internal and external stakeholder negotiation. Strategies included using term limits to bring in new board members who were emotionally detached from past organisational practices.

Discussion and implications for research and practice

The main theoretical takeaway from this study is the support for a contingent and dynamic view of change agents and processes. As prior scholarship has found, we also find a clear role for internal or external catalysing events to start the change process. But our analysis finds no clear path to improved governance, at least with respect to the processes for achieving change. Practitioners may find it challenging to learn that the path is not necessarily obvious at the outset. Indeed, individuals involved in the initiating events did not necessarily understand that their best solution was a different governance strategy – this idea sometimes came later. And the application of a board-centric or staff-centric lens in the context of change management may be too limited to explain a process of governance improvement that may depend on radical adjustments and cooperation at both levels of leadership. Future research should continue to explore these questions.

The most important practical takeaway gleaned from the interviews with organisational leaders is that there are clear rewards and challenges when taking non-profit governance in new directions. A significant finding is that none of the respondents appeared to regret the journey, although most found it more daunting and time-consuming than they anticipated. It is also noteworthy that although this study design focused on ‘what works’, the ingredients for success were clearly not self-evident to most of the organisational leadership when they embarked on their governance change process, and many did not engage in any sense making until after the fact. Future research could seek to understand whether foresight makes a difference in governance change management.

When a need for governance change may be triggered by seemingly unrelated organisational events, crises and opportunities, and when leaders may vary in their understanding of what requires improvement, what seems to be important is a certain level of organisational resilience. This study was not designed to identify ideal organisational cultures, but they clearly mattered to transformational change efforts. Many accounts described boards and their stakeholders who were prepared to change because they had a culture of learning in place, or a culture of respect that gave them room to experiment with a new approach without losing stakeholder trust. This finding supports the argument of Rosenbaum et al (2017) that a positive change management process builds stakeholder confidence. This link is worthy of more focused future research exploration.

A focus on resilience and culture reminds us that any appearance found here of random or indeterminate origins of governance change may be misleading. There is some evidence from prior literature that the characteristics of change agents, policy entrepreneurs and other types of social reformers are predictable in the sense that they can be identified on some personality scales, for example with strong achievement-, action- and leadership-oriented profiles (see King and Roberts, 1992) or with strong organisational identity (see Hameed et al, 2019). The role of the change agent may vary (board chair, executive director, board coalition) only because the individual with the requisite personality profile can emerge from more than one place. In other words, while contingency theory suggests an unpredictable chain of events, it also suggests that how stakeholders react and who may lead should be more predictable.

The value of these change-receptive or change-resilient individuals to strategic change has not been generally discussed in the context of board leadership, but their potential organisational value has been linked to related considerations such as general leadership qualities – see, for example, Vito and Sethi’s (2020) examination of participatory leadership in change management. Practitioners interested in the notion of organisational resilience might consider the benefits of identifying and then strengthening the internal human resources on whom they rely when the unexpected happens, and scholars should try to include such information in future research. The recognition by change agents that resistance is a normal human reaction that can be addressed seemed to be a key element in minimising board turnover, membership loss or other stakeholder desertions.

These recollections also suggest that organisations take advantage of both need-driven and resource-driven windows of opportunity (a central tenet of many motivation theories). For example, the majority of respondents discovered they were lacking something – leadership, strategic direction, a productive culture or the ability to grow – but some also understood that their current governance structure was holding them back from a new opportunity. The goals or needs of strategic change management should be captured in future research.

The findings also make strong connections between governance changes and organisational life-cycle theory, which can also be explored in future research. Many of the executive directors and board chairs who were interviewed described the need to update their governance structure as the organisation achieved a new level of maturity. In several instances, the board change occurred after the departure of a long-serving executive. Board change, therefore, can occur as a natural part of organisational evolution, a response to growth, decline, new needs or opportunities, and changes in the balance of leadership and power. The general management literature argues that young organisations change to survive, to claim a niche or to reach the next level of growth. Mature organisations change to re-energise or renew their cultures, or to rid themselves of calcified cultures that prevent them from market adaptation (Beatty and Ulrich, 1993: 61). This study’s findings suggest, not surprisingly, that the same objectives may apply in non-profit contexts and extend to governance processes.

Social ecologists will also recognise useful takeaways and possible future research questions in the finding that while some respondents managed to effect governance change incrementally, plenty of non-profit governance change – at least change at more radical levels – appeared to follow the punctuated equilibrium model, in which long, inactive timespans are interrupted by intense periods of activity (True et al, 1999). A similar pattern was found herein, when a board of directors works steadily under one governance model for a long period of time, perhaps serving with a longstanding executive director or founder who has held the leadership role for years. In such instances, inertia may build. Then, when a dramatic change occurs through loss of leadership, a crisis or an opportunity, agents of change rally to propose a new governance strategy.

When they do so, they may employ the coalition-building tactics described by advocacy coalition theory (Sabatier, 1988). Success rests on building a dominant coalition, involving the familiar negotiations, concessions and persuasive tactics. However, this analysis also suggests a divergence from the more cut-throat tactics employed by some policy actors in that boards, under the fiduciary duty of care, may go to great lengths to treat change-resistant factions fairly.

This study has limitations as noted, resulting either from the study design (with its focus on success stories) or from data and methodology limitations. However, we hope it helps to fill identified gaps in non-profit scholarship. Few systematic efforts have looked inside corporate or non-profit boards of directors to understand how change processes unfold. Most governance research looks ex post at board performance or attempts to link ex ante board characteristics to performance without capturing change dynamics. Most change research focuses on employee behaviour rather than leadership dynamics. Internal processes of non-profits are hard to capture at a multi-case scale. Therefore, this research has practical as well as theoretical value in helping us to understand the dynamics and processes of successful change efforts across a variety of organisational missions, where the focus is on understanding whether there are identifiable patterns of behaviour that may help future researchers in theory building and help future practitioners in organisational development efforts.

Notes

1

In the Gazley and Bowers (2013) study, 1,585 non-profit CEOs rated their boards on 20 metrics derived from the expert practitioner and academic literature (for example, member relations, stewardship over resources, understanding of the external environment and strategic thinking).

2

As an additional control and to increase objectivity, executive director job satisfaction was included to limit the effect of board performance rankings that relied subjectively on executive director perceptions of conflict with their boards.

3

The authors tapped professional networks and previous clients for cases to include, such as the American Council of Learned Societies, the Association Forum of Chicagoland, Senior Governance Consultants at BoardSource and the Alliance for Nonprofit Management.

4

The full set of case studies were published in a practitioner text (Gazley and Kissman, 2015).

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that there is no conflict of interest.

References

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  • Balogun, J. and Hailey, V.H. (2008) Exploring Strategic Change, London: Pearson Education.

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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Bovey, W.H. and Hede, A. (2001) Resistance to organizational change: the role of cognitive and affective processes, Leadership & Organization Development Journal, 22(8): 37282.

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  • Bradshaw, P., Murray, V. and Wolpin, J. (1992) Do nonprofit boards make a difference? An exploration of the relationships among board structure, process, and effectiveness, Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 21(3): 22749. doi: 10.1177/089976409202100304

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Burnes, B. (2004) Kurt Lewin and the planned approach to change: a Re‐appraisal, Journal of Management Studies, 41(6): 9771002. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-6486.2004.00463.x

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Chait, R.P., Holland, T.P. and Taylor, B.E. (1993) The Effective Board of Trustees, Phoeniz, AZ: Oryx Press.

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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Dion, D. (2003) Evidence and inference in the comparative case study, in G. Goertz and H. Starr (eds) Necessary Conditions: Theory, Methodology, and Applications, Washington, DC: Roman & Littlefield, pp 95112.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Gazley, B. and Guo, C. (2020) What do we know about nonprofit collaboration? A systematic review of the literature, Nonprofit Management and Leadership, 31(2): 21132. doi: 10.1002/nml.21433

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Export Citation
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    • Export Citation
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    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • King, P.J. and Roberts, N.C. (1992) An investigation into the personality profile of policy entrepreneurs, Public Productivity & Management Review, 16(2): 17390. doi: 10.2307/3380990

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Lewin, K. (1943) Psychological ecology, in D. Cartwright (ed) Field Theory in Social Science, London: Social Science Paperbacks.

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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Miller-Millesen, J.L. (2003) Understanding the behavior of nonprofit boards of directors: a theory-based approach, Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 32(4): 52147. doi: 10.1177/0899764003257463

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Ostrower, F. and Stone, M.M. (2010) Moving governance research forward: aA contingency-based framework and data application, Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 39(5): 90124. doi: 10.1177/0899764009338962

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Piderit, S.K. (2000) Rethinking resistance and recognizing ambivalence: a multidimensional view of attitudes toward an organizational change, Academy of Management Review, 25(4): 78394. doi: 10.2307/259206

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Reid, W. and Turbide, J. (2012) Board/staff relationships in a growth crisis: implications for nonprofit governance, Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 41(1): 8299. doi: 10.1177/0899764011398296

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Rosenbaum, D., More, E. and Steane, P. (2017) A longitudinal qualitative case study of change in nonprofits: suggesting a new approach to the management of change, Journal of Management & Organization, 23(1): 7491.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Sabatier, P.A. (1988) An advocacy coalition framework of policy change and the role of policy-oriented learning therein, Policy Sciences, 21(2): 12968. doi: 10.1007/BF00136406

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • True, J.L., Jones, B.D. and Baumgartner, F.R. (1999) Punctuated-equilibrium theory: explaining stability and change in American policymaking, in P. Sabatier (ed) Theories of the Policy Process, London: Routledge, pp 97115.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Vito, R. and Sethi, B. (2020) Managing change: role of leadership and diversity management, Journal of Organizational Change Management, 33(7): 147183. doi: 10.1108/JOCM-04-2019-0116

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Wilson, A.O. (2019) The role of storytelling in navigating through the storm of change, Journal of Organizational Change Management, 32(3): 38595. doi: 10.1108/JOCM-12-2018-0343

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Yin, R.K. (2013) Case Study Research: Design and Methods, London: Sage Publications.

  • Zhu, H., Wang, P. and Bart, C. (2016) Board processes, board strategic involvement, and organizational performance in for-profit and non-profit organizations, Journal of Business Ethics, 136(2): 31128. doi: 10.1007/s10551-014-2512-1

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Argyris, C. (1990) Overcoming Organizational Defenses, Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

  • Balogun, J. and Hailey, V.H. (2008) Exploring Strategic Change, London: Pearson Education.

  • Beatty, R.W. and Ulrich, D.O. (1993) Re-energizing the mature organization, in T.D. Jick (ed) Managing Change: Cases and Concepts, Boston, MA: Irwin/McGraw-Hill.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Bovey, W.H. and Hede, A. (2001) Resistance to organizational change: the role of cognitive and affective processes, Leadership & Organization Development Journal, 22(8): 37282.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Bradshaw, P. (2009) A contingency approach to nonprofit governance, Nonprofit Management and Leadership, 20(1): 6181. doi: 10.1002/nml.241

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Bradshaw, P., Murray, V. and Wolpin, J. (1992) Do nonprofit boards make a difference? An exploration of the relationships among board structure, process, and effectiveness, Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 21(3): 22749. doi: 10.1177/089976409202100304

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Brudney, J. L. and Murray, V. (1998) Do intentional efforts to improve boards really work? The views of nonprofit CEOs. Nonprofit management and leadership, 8(4): 33348.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Burnes, B. (2004) Kurt Lewin and the planned approach to change: a Re‐appraisal, Journal of Management Studies, 41(6): 9771002. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-6486.2004.00463.x

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • By, R.T. (2005) Organisational change management: a critical review, Journal of Change Management, 5(4): 36980. doi: 10.1080/14697010500359250

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Chait, R.P., Holland, T.P. and Taylor, B.E. (1993) The Effective Board of Trustees, Phoeniz, AZ: Oryx Press.

  • Collier, D. (1995) Translating quantitative methods for qualitative researchers: the case of selection bias, American Political Science Review, 89(2): 4616. doi: 10.2307/2082442

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Dion, D. (2003) Evidence and inference in the comparative case study, in G. Goertz and H. Starr (eds) Necessary Conditions: Theory, Methodology, and Applications, Washington, DC: Roman & Littlefield, pp 95112.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Donaldson, L. (2001) The Contingency Theory of Organizations, London: Sage Publications.

  • Freiwirth, J. (2014) Community engagement governance: engaging stakeholders for community impact, in C. Cornforth and W.A. Brown (eds) Nonprofit Governance: Innovative Perspectives and Approaches, New York, NY: Routledge, pp 183209.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Gazley, B. and Bowers, A. (2013) What Makes High-performing Boards Effective: Governance Practices in Member-serving Organizations, Washington, DC: ASAE Association Management Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Gazley, B. and Guo, C. (2020) What do we know about nonprofit collaboration? A systematic review of the literature, Nonprofit Management and Leadership, 31(2): 21132. doi: 10.1002/nml.21433

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Gazley, B. and Kissman, K. (2015) Transformational governance: How boards achieve extraordinary change, Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

  • Gill, M.J. (2014) The possibilities of phenomenology for organizational research, Organizational Research Methods, 17(2): 11837. doi: 10.1177/1094428113518348

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Goodstein, J. and Boeker, W. (1991) Turbulence at the top: a new perspective on governance structure changes and strategic change, Academy of Management Journal, 34(2): 30630.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Groenewald, T. (2004) A phenomenological research design illustrated, International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 3(1): 4255. doi: 10.1177/160940690400300104

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Hameed, I., Khan, A.K., Sabharwal, M., Arain, G.A. and Hameed, I. (2019) Managing successful change efforts in the public sector: an employee’s readiness for change perspective, Review of Public Personnel Administration, 39(3): 398421. doi: 10.1177/0734371X17729869

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Harrison, Y.D. and Murray, V. (2015) The effect of an online self-assessment tool on nonprofit board performance, Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 44(6): 112951. doi: 10.1177/0899764014557361

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Herman, R.D. and Heimovics, R.D. (1990) The effective nonprofit executive: leader of the board, Nonprofit Management and Leadership, 1(2): 16780. doi: 10.1002/nml.4130010207

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Isabella, L.A. (1992) Managing the challenges of trigger events: the mindsets governing adaptation to change, Business Horizons, 35(5): 5967. doi: 10.1016/0007-6813(92)90055-E

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • King, P.J. and Roberts, N.C. (1992) An investigation into the personality profile of policy entrepreneurs, Public Productivity & Management Review, 16(2): 17390. doi: 10.2307/3380990

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Lewin, K. (1943) Psychological ecology, in D. Cartwright (ed) Field Theory in Social Science, London: Social Science Paperbacks.

  • Mento, A., Jones, R. and Dirndorfer, W. (2002) A change management process: grounded in both theory and practice, Journal of Change Management, 3(1): 4559. doi: 10.1080/714042520

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Miller-Millesen, J.L. (2003) Understanding the behavior of nonprofit boards of directors: a theory-based approach, Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 32(4): 52147. doi: 10.1177/0899764003257463

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Ostrower, F. and Stone, M.M. (2010) Moving governance research forward: aA contingency-based framework and data application, Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 39(5): 90124. doi: 10.1177/0899764009338962

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Piderit, S.K. (2000) Rethinking resistance and recognizing ambivalence: a multidimensional view of attitudes toward an organizational change, Academy of Management Review, 25(4): 78394. doi: 10.2307/259206

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Reid, W. and Turbide, J. (2012) Board/staff relationships in a growth crisis: implications for nonprofit governance, Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 41(1): 8299. doi: 10.1177/0899764011398296

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Rosenbaum, D., More, E. and Steane, P. (2017) A longitudinal qualitative case study of change in nonprofits: suggesting a new approach to the management of change, Journal of Management & Organization, 23(1): 7491.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Sabatier, P.A. (1988) An advocacy coalition framework of policy change and the role of policy-oriented learning therein, Policy Sciences, 21(2): 12968. doi: 10.1007/BF00136406

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • True, J.L., Jones, B.D. and Baumgartner, F.R. (1999) Punctuated-equilibrium theory: explaining stability and change in American policymaking, in P. Sabatier (ed) Theories of the Policy Process, London: Routledge, pp 97115.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Vito, R. and Sethi, B. (2020) Managing change: role of leadership and diversity management, Journal of Organizational Change Management, 33(7): 147183. doi: 10.1108/JOCM-04-2019-0116

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Wilson, A.O. (2019) The role of storytelling in navigating through the storm of change, Journal of Organizational Change Management, 32(3): 38595. doi: 10.1108/JOCM-12-2018-0343

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Yin, R.K. (2013) Case Study Research: Design and Methods, London: Sage Publications.

  • Zhu, H., Wang, P. and Bart, C. (2016) Board processes, board strategic involvement, and organizational performance in for-profit and non-profit organizations, Journal of Business Ethics, 136(2): 31128. doi: 10.1007/s10551-014-2512-1

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 1 Indiana University-Bloomington, , USA
  • | 2 Nonprofit Board Governance Consultant, , USA

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