6 Governance Models for Small Nonprofits

The typical and most common type of nonprofit board governance model consists of a voluntary board of directors. Generally, they are otherwise employed within the community. These board members then pair with volunteers and paid employees to get the actual work of the nonprofit done.

This basic structure is sufficient for many small nonprofits. But in some cases, another nonprofit governance model may serve the needs of the organization more effectively. For nonprofits with a sole founder, those with strong patrons, or those wishing to have community insight, there are other governance models to choose from.

board governance models

Board Governance Models for Small Nonprofits

1. Advisory Boards

Many nonprofits begin with a single person who later becomes the CEO or director of the organization. To register as an official nonprofit, a board is required. This volunteer board works in an advisory capacity to fill in the gaps and ensure that the founder has what they need to succeed. An advisory board may have members skilled in local law, taxes, marketing, and more. In many cases, the founding member has a desire or expertise to serve a specific community (stray pets, hungry citizens, homeless individuals). However, they may need extra guidance for the business and legal aspects of running a nonprofit.  

RELATED: 3 Vital Nonprofit Roles for New Nonprofits

2. Patron Models

Organizations that need support with PR, networking, name recognition, and fundraising often turn to this model. Patron governance models rely on the board to create and run fundraising events and activities. Board members are often chosen for their place in the community or their family wealth. They often run other organizations or foundations. Patron members personally contribute heavily and rely on their own personal charisma, connections, and network to generate funds.

A patron board model is less businesslike. Their focus is on support and raising funds. A single annual meeting combined with social gatherings may be all that this model needs. After all, the bulk of the governance work will be done by volunteers and the people working for the nonprofit. This model works when patrons are involved and interested. A family member with the condition the nonprofit works to aid, a family connection, or a strong individual interest in the arts is often the driving force behind a patron model board.

3. Cooperative Model

No committees or board seat rankings here. Board members work as a group and all have equal voting rights and authority. This model is the most democratic form of governance, since every member (and the organization’s director) has a voice. Similar to the advisory board model, this board is best for those who have a common vision and work together well.

4. Policy Governance Model

This approach takes the basic volunteer board a little further and creates management committees responsible for different areas. This allows for a CEO or manager to run the nonprofit. It is more formal than the simple volunteer-based boards described above, with committees and regular meetings that focus on specific areas of support and governance.

5. Community Engagement Governance Model

A new offering from the Alliance for Nonprofit Management is the Community Engagement Governance Model. With this model, stakeholders and the community maintain responsibility for governance. The idea is that the board serves the community but may not be a part of it. Having community insight is essential for boards to serve a specific population. Without insight and a full understanding of the mission and needs of the community, the board simply can’t function effectively. Giving the community a chance to be involved at a fundamental level yields better results for many small, local nonprofits.

RELATED: Wave of the Future: Board Assessment Portals

6. Hybrid Board Governance Model

Some boards find that one or more of the models described above work for them, or that features of two or more models are appealing. When this happens, a hybrid governance model can be created and deployed. Hybrid models are particularly effective for small boards and allow for full customization to meet the needs of a new or growing organization. When you choose a hybrid model, you can pick and choose what features work best for your board, provided they meet your organization’s mission, needs, and current tax law.

No matter which form of governance you choose, your governance documents and policies must be kept up to date and followed. Over time, many nonprofits experience changes to board makeup, governance style or policy. Being aware of changes and documenting them ensures your board always has a direction and rules to follow.

Board Governance Check

Is your nonprofit covering all the bases? Make sure your organization is prepared for any situation with our free ebook, “The Nonprofit Board Governance Guide: Everything You Need to Know.” Use this complete guide to make sure your bylaws, policies, and plans not only cover your organization, but also protect the individuals on your team. Share it at your next meeting.

This ebook from Boardable outlines the responsibilities of a nonprofit board and the governance provisions to have in place for success.

This guide from Boardable outlines the responsibilities of a nonprofit board and the governance provisions to have in place for success.

BONUS: Board Member Profile Matrix included!

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