Decolonizing Governance: My Takeaways

By Danielle Rocheleau, C.Dir., CEO

As a self-professed governance nerd (yes, this is a thing!), I spend a lot of time training and working with non-profit boards. I routinely engage in professional development myself to push my thinking and learning with respect to emerging governance practices.

To be honest, I am routinely disappointed.

This is one area where the non-profit sector is stuck. We can’t seem to think beyond what governance means today. How can we make the transition toward creating welcoming, safe, and inclusive spaces and structures?

There’s an appetite for change, but the questions persist.

(How) can we do governance differently?

Well-intentioned volunteers, who are passionate about your organization’s mission, vision, and values aren’t necessarily also ‘self-professed governance nerds’. In fact, board members may never have been on a board before; we all need to start somewhere. There isn’t often a deep well of knowledge or experience, and yet they’re putting their hand up to take on an important role and the responsibility of giving shape to the governance and long-term continuity of the organization. This is great! We need more of this commitment to meaningful community service and change in the non-profit world.

So, how can we keep those volunteers engaged, while re-imagining how we can work together through effective governance? How can we avoid inadvertently reinforcing the ‘traditional’ governance approaches that are keeping us from ensuring an inclusive board?

The Decolonizing Governance Community Learning Event

On June 15th, I was fortunate to attend one of Laridae’s Community Learning Events addressing Decolonizing Governance, hosted by Caitlin Patterson, Laridae’s Interim Director of Consulting Services. The event’s knowledgable panel included:

This was such an informative, engaging, and clear session. It inspired real reflection and some great “Aha!” moments. There was a point where I was almost brought to tears; a moment where I realized that changes to governance don’t have to be so complicated. I also became very aware of how I, too, get stuck in my thinking about governance, and struggle to recognize what can and cannot be done differently.

The specific call-outs of commonly understood governance practices as “the only way” to do governance were amazing reminders for me that we have the power to design how we engage together at that level.

I wanted to share some of the thoughtful comments that I found to be so helpful in reflecting on governance practices, and exploring how we can start moving forward to shift our approaches.

Key ideas shared during the session

Commit to sustaining change

As a group, we need to be more than open to change; we need to be committed to it. It isn’t about talking about the change or just starting the change, it’s about sustaining change. This is not easy, but together, it’s possible. In this commitment, we need to envision what we want this change to be. Get clear on our vision, and then commit to moving ahead, even when it feels hard.

Break down the change

Once you have a clear commitment to the vision of what your board will be and how you want to work together, start to question why you do everything the way you do. Dismantle the individual approaches that contribute to the status quo of governance — from how we manage our agendas, to the questions we ask, to the decision-making approaches we use, to how we invite discussion. Using the vision you articulated, map out the things that you want to change, and tackle them one at a time. I’m talking about changes in behaviour. These changes will take time, because we will fall back into old ways of doing things, and we sometimes won’t even realize how these things reinforce inherently anti-inclusive structures.

Throw out Robert’s Rules

Boards get caught up in whether they’re “doing it right” in terms of processes, and it takes away from healthy discussion and decision-making. Governance isn’t about the perfect way to do something, it’s about making meaningful decisions and progress toward an organization’s mission. Many don’t realize that Robert’s Rules are just one way or model to do governance.  

We spend more time asking “are we making the motion correctly?” than “did we discuss this in a meaningful way to feel great about our decision-making together?” Understanding your roles and responsibilities as a board is integral. Once you’re clear, you can start to design how you can hold true to those responsibilities in a way that levels the playing field, feels authentic to your vision for governance, and keeps the organization’s mission and wellbeing at the centre of your engagement.

Design board rules that address power dynamics

Being aware of power dynamics is crucial in designing effective board roles. By implementing practices like rotating chairs, power imbalances are mitigated, promoting equal participation, diverse perspectives, and shared decision-making. This fosters a more inclusive and democratic governance structure.

Remember, once you’re clear on what you are accountable to achieving together, you can start to design your own way of making it happen, together. Reimagining the board roles, such as Chair, is just one way you can do it.

Explore consensus decision-making

Exploring what consensus decision-making is and how best it can be done requires that we reflect on and work toward a collaborative process where discussion leads to shared understanding. A lack of immediate decision-making is not failure; it signals the need for deeper comprehension, fostering inclusive, and informed choices. Open dialogue and investing in healthy engagement support better understanding, bridge divides, and nurture collaboration. They pave the way for effective problem-solving and inclusive decision-making, benefiting individuals and communities alike.

Next Steps

Downloadable Resource: 9 Practical Steps to Decolonize Non-Profit Board Governance

If you’re looking for potential next steps for your board, feel free to download our PDF resource, “9 Practical Steps to Decolonize Non-Profit Board Governance.”

Get in Touch

If you’d like to discuss this topic further, please feel free to reach out via the form below. We can either help you out directly, or help you find the best partner to support your board through change.