Generative Boards: Beyond the Dollars, Beyond the Sense

When it comes to board ethics, it’s easy to prioritize policies and procedures, making sure things are getting done the right way—have the right people reviewed and approved all the financial statements? are conflicts of interest being disclosed and managed properly? are HR reports addressed in compliance with laws and organizational values?

And that’s good, of course!

But according to Richard Chait, one of the authors of Governance as Leadership: Reframing the Work of Nonprofit Boards, many board members feel (and, indeed, are) ineffectual, disengaged, and unproductive because they lack a compelling purpose. “Limited purpose produces limited performance,” says Chait. “The question is: How do we create not just a job to do but a job worth doing? How do we get people not just to do the work but to do better work?” (emphasis in original)

Chait and his co-authors assert that, to elicit more meaningful participation and performance from boards, the work of the board should be reframed around three modes: fiduciary, strategic, and generative.


In his leadership blog Governinggood, Grant MacDonald uses a compelling metaphor to explain the difference between these modes:

If you think of your non-profit organization as a bus, the fiduciary mode of governance has the board and executive director (or CEO) in the back of the bus looking at the past and present. The strategic mode involves everyone running to the front of the bus to look out the window to see where it is going and perhaps decide to alter the route.

But what of the generative mode? What would you guess?

The generative mode requires the organization’s leadership to get off the bus, to start walking and looking around and talking with people in the community.

“Under the worst of circumstances,” Chait muses, “you can imagine an organization that is both lawful and financially viable—and of no social purpose.” To continue the bus metaphor—we might know that what we’ve done is good and lawful and how to get to where we want to go, but no one can remember why they wanted to go there in the first place.

At our Executive Breakfast on March 20th, UNMC & UNO Chancellor Dr. Jeffrey Gold will discuss board ethics and governance, including the value of the generative mode.