Our chair thinks the constitution is 'the source of all wisdom', but is it?

Borthwick Chris Jul2019lg

In this help sheet series, Our Community’s resident agony uncle, Chris Borthwick, offers answers to frequently asked questions about issues not-for-profits are facing.

Dear Agony Uncle,

The chair of our organisation often refers to the constitution as the source of all wisdom. If other board members suggest a particular way of doing things, he says something like, “Well, the constitution doesn’t say we have to.”

I’m interested in learning more about the other governance documents that flow from the constitution ... that may help the chair (and the rest of the board) to understand that there’s more to good governance than doing things according to the requirements of the constitution. Most of the other board members resist what they call “over-bureaucratisation”.

Agony Uncle's answer

To give your chair credit, he is arguably a step ahead of organisations that refer to the constitution only when someone objects to something that someone else has done, or when things have already gone horribly wrong.

On the other hand, you’re right to say that there’s a lot more to good governance. You refer to “other governance documents that flow from” the constitution. Do you mean documents created under the constitution that are supposed to bind the board and the members? Offhand, I can think of these ones: policies; procedures; board standing orders; strategic, business and marketing plans; codes of ethics; and, rules and regulations.

Each of these has its advantages:

  • Getting everyone onto the same page
  • Knowing what the penalties are for breaches, if any
  • Not having to start from scratch each time a decision comes up.

And its risks:

  • The risk of over-bureaucratising the organisation
  • The risk of antagonising or driving away members
  • The risk of paying only lip service or conducting box-ticking exercises.

Each board has to decide for each item where the right balance lies.

Best wishes,
Agony Uncle.

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