COCo's Board of Directors

The Role of a Board of Directors in a Flat Organization

For the last 15 years, COCo has been collectively managed, or “flat” organization. Throughout that time, we have wrestled with the question the role of a Board of Directors – both in general, and particularly when our overall organization is non-hierarchical! 

Over the course of that time, we have developed some cool ways of working and collaborating – but this is still an area where we have a lot of work to do. We would love to hear how your Board is involved in your organization! And if your organization is hierarchical but not planning on changing that anytime soon, here is one of our former Board members speaking about what he took away from the experience, even though his current Board runs very differently:

“Sometimes when you see examples like COCo who are farther on the spectrum around consensus and flatnessness – it gives an example of what is possible even if you don’t want to go all the way there. It gives you options, a way to position yourself on the spectrum” – former Board member 

Our Board History 

Over COCo’s 20 year history, we have had: 

  • A rubber stamp Board (when the organization was first forming) 
  • An operational Board (when the organization was restructuring) 
  • A highly engaged Board, who themselves initiated and ran projects parallel to the staff (there isn’t really a word for this kind of Board, although we called it “collaborative”!) 
  • A governance Board with a touch of operational hands on work alongside the staff (over the last 5 years) 

Our Board of Directors Now

Our Board is still in flux…. But here are some features of our Board of Directors that distinguish it from others: 

  • Our executive titles are nominal. They are used for signing important documents and to report to the REQ, but they offer no additional power or responsibility on the Board. 
  • Our retreats involve board and staff. Strategy and global decision making are something we do together, with our different perspectives and strengths. 
  • Staff participate in board meetings. We rotate who goes, based on availability and need; our finance coordinator goes to budget meetings, and so on. 
  • Board-staff collaboration. Instead of committees, we have “hubs”, which can be Board and staff, or just staff, or just Board – based on need. This allows a wider range of Board members to work with a wider range of staff members. 

Some Things We’ve Learnt 

We have to make our expectations clear. 

This was the most common thing that came up at all stages of COCo’s governance. Some examples that were brought up:

  • The Board & staff creating ambitious master plans and then expecting the staff to carry it out (spoiler: this didn’t work) 
  • The staff bristling at critique and criticism from the Board (no one was thrilled about this dynamic)
  • An wide open relationship between board and staff meant that the Board was involved in a level of decision making that both parties were not comfortable with. One former Board member noted “A total lack of division in roles and responsibilities is one way of interpreting a flatter organization, but there needs to be more deliberateness. What are the boundaries?”

As one current Board member put it: 

“If we’re not clear on roles, everyone is responsible but no one is responsible. The Board needs to have clear roles, maintain flexibility, and have systems for knowing if things are not getting done.”

We need trust between the Board of Directors and staff. 

For this kind of experimental collaboration to work, we need to make sure our relationship is strong. People talked about:

  • Having spaces to work with each other (example, planning retreats together) so that we get to know each other
  • Planning regular social events 
  • Practicing being honest and clear when pieces of the relationship are not working for one or the other party 

One person said:

“I am not sure that everyone coming on the Board understands what it means horizontal except that staff don’t want to be bossed around. What it means is that we need a trusting relationship.”

Another person said that they learned about the importance of “small and manageable ways for Board & staff to collaborate together”.

Anti-oppression & equity on a Board of Directors presents new challenges.

One of the challenges the Board has faced has been how to more deeply live or integrate COCo’s anti-oppressive values. One of the Board members spoke to the usefulness of going through a ‘Theory of Change’ process – an intensive 6 months that allowed staff and Board to exchange more fully on these questions. Other Board members noted the following kinds of issues:

  • It can take more time to create cultural change with a group that meets less often and has more turnover 
  • Issues with equity can be exacerbated by the fact that Board members are volunteers 
  • How can we apply the same level of rigour to Board recruitment and onboarding, to ensure our organization is diverse and can live out its anti-oppressive values? 

Nothing is certain except change. 

Many changes have created or demanded changes on our Board of Directors, including: 

  • Our own change in organizational structure 
  • Trying to find further alignment with our organizational values, particularly of anti-oppression  
  • A change in the people on our Board and their interests and motivations 
  • A change in the size of our organization 

One board member also spoke about the importance of outside changes: 

“We have gone from coming from a fear of losing half our funding to doubling or tripling in size…The environment influences a lot what kind of Board you are. Stressful situations can make an organization fold into itself (e.g. Board getting more controlling, or staff pushing Board away or asking for more). There is no such thing as a smooth sailing board and staff relationship – like any intimate relationship you have to lubricate and talk and discuss.”

Culture eats strategy for breakfast. 

Many board members over the years talked about the importance of having a strong, thoughtful, explicit, reflected organizational culture, and board culture- and not just a structure or a system or a strategy. One former Boardie said:

“I came to COCO from government and political parties, so it was a HUGE difference. It taught me about the importance of organizational culture, and what it means to come from values, from a larger vision, from shared principles or desires, and shared struggle. AGM’s felt more like family. As I tiptoed my way into movement building working, the importance of organizational culture, and having that instilled in the governance layer became really clear to me.” 

Over the years, there are a number of Board members that pointed to an issue with a culture of talking, talking, talking – and not moving into action. One Board member, looking back at the restructuring process in the mid to late 2000s, said:

“There was a heavy talking culture at COCo – which can exclude marginalized communities. In some cases there was also a high expectation around emotional investment, which I think came from a kind of privilege…. I believe this was a burden for some who were more heavily taxed by other responsibilities outside of their CoCo roles.”

But…We still need structure! Lots of Structure! 

One Board member said:Being collective doesn’t mean that there is no structure- it’s MORE structure and MORE policies. There is a stereotype that it means that it’s chaos – but it’s an organized and decentralized practice”. 

But COCo has struggled with this on our Board:

  • In the 2000s, one Board member talked about tension between Board and staff about how to build structure, and how much to have, and how much to talk about it: “There was a sort of “structural overload” everyone was feeling and not a lot of a sense of movement forward.”
  • Feeling blocked on how to formalize a board structure, or feeling drained by the process of doing so 

Over the past couple of years, our Board of Directors has been developing and trying out more pieces of structure – redefining roles, trying new ways to collaborate with staff, meeting more regularly, and debriefing what is working and not. We’d love to hear what works for you – whether you are collaboratively managed or not! 

Thank you to current and former Board members for participating in putting together this document!