Recent Trends In Non Profit Governance

Last month Non-Profit Quarterly (NPQ) published a summary of BoardSource’s governance index, Leading With Intent.

The summary is encouraging in that it shows a vast majority of non-profit boards engage in good governance practices. (Although NPQ notes that the results may be slightly skewed given most people on BoardSource’s survey mailing list tend to be people who have contacted them due to interest in good governance.)

The disappointing, though not surprising, finding is that most board and executive leaders are Caucasian and over 40.

“But the lack of inclusion of younger people and people of color on boards and as executive directors seems to point to an unwillingness to join in and make best use of the current societal disruption.

Young people have a different experience base in the political and social uses of networks, which relates to the ability to approach big questions. Additionally, smaller boards can best work for the good of a larger community if those boards have an understanding of how to interact effectively with a larger, more diverse, and unbounded governance system of stakeholders. This cutting edge of governance requires cultural wisdom and the wisdom of younger leadership.”

I was interested to learn that board size has shrunk by 20% between 1994 and 2014 and there is a de-emphasis on people with connections to money. (my emphasis)

The thought that boards must be packed with influential connectors seems to be going the way of the dodo, at least for many organizations. This fits well with the idea that boards should know how to interact effectively with larger systems of governance and support. “Interacting effectively” in these times means that board members are connected enough to the organization and its stakeholder environment to ensure proper communication with stakeholders. Board members should be capable of listening with an educated ear for the tremors and trends in the organization’s environment. A lack of diversity on the board interferes with the capacity to accurately “listen.”

Although NPQ was generally optimistic about it, I had mixed feelings about the news that executive directors have remained in their jobs rather than making a mass exodus as was once feared. My feelings are the same as they were back in 2007/2008 when the concern about mass retirement of executive directors was first expressed.

At that time there weren’t many organizations with succession plans in place or an active efforts to cultivate people to assume those positions and according to the current NPQ article, there still aren’t. While NPQ acknowledges the lack of succession planning is a problem, my focus is more on the cultivation of new leaders.

My fear is that if potential leaders don’t feel like they are being challenged and provided with significant responsibility and decision making opportunities, they may choose to shift their careers elsewhere. The result may be a new generation of leaders with very shallow experience with non-profit work.

I often encourage people to read the full text of a report and that is especially true for this one since NPQ is soliciting articles that make use of the compiled data. If this is a topic which interests you, consider writing about it.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


5 thoughts on “Recent Trends In Non Profit Governance”

  1. Hi Joe,

    Thanks for this insight and reflection regarding the NPQ report.

    I strongly agree that nonprofit boards should seek out more diverse representation, and I love the idea of more young professionals having the chance to meaningfully contribute on these boards. I also believe that the second trend you shared (about the de-emphasis on people with connections to money) might end up being the key that will allow nonprofit boards to diversify. As a very young professional myself, I know that the main impediment keeping me from serving on a nonprofit board is my limited access to money. I think there is a much longer conversation to be had about Board service and Privilege, and I would love to hear more of your thoughts on the subject someday.

    Thanks again,


  2. I love the service i am able to provide on boards, commissions, and as a consultant. They are all provided for no compensation which means even if I am not giving money I am giving time and possibly spending my own money on transport. It’s a loss of income and I feel it. The impact is needed and these organizations who invite me to serve are forward thinking for reaching out to a disabled woman of color. It is a sacrifice however.

    • Claudia-

      When I read your comment, it brought to mind a member of our board who is wheelchair bound and the challenges he faces getting to meetings. Sure enough, today he called saying that he was having difficulty getting to a meeting because the plows had piled snow on the curb cuts he used to travel across town.

      Not only do we need to be mindful of the extra effort he needs to make to attend, but his participation on the board calls attention to the challenges many of our potential audience members may face in trying to get to our shows. These are issues that would likely escape our notice because they don’t pose as great an impediment to the rest of the board members.

      Including him on the board provides us with that different perspective we need to be mindful of. Hopefully you are able to provide the same service to the boards with which you participate.

  3. We’ve not had the best luck with younger board members, though we have tried. Often, their ability to have time away from the office conflicts with the needs of the organization. They also tend to have more demands of their time like kids. We continue to try, but the young board members who is actively engaged continues to be hard to find.


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