‘If I’d only known all this before,’ exclaimed an executive director of a Romanian NGO when reading this book. And indeed A Handbook of NGO Governance is the kind of book we all wish we’d read before starting a non-profit organization. Produced in 2004 by the Central and Eastern European Working Group on Non-profit Governance (a group of non-profit leaders, experts and professionals), this guide is an excellent tool for putting theory into practice in the Central and Eastern European non-profit sector.
When civil society began to develop in Eastern Europe in 1989, its impetus was so strong that it was difficult to slow down and think through such complicated issues as accountability or governance. It quite often happened, therefore, that in newly and enthusiastically formed groups, the borders of membership, staff and governance were blurred. Significant conflicts of interest occurred and accountability and transparency were absent and difficult to create.
If the 15 years of pioneering civil society activity in Central and Eastern Europe, out of which this book has grown, was a period of ‘learning by doing’, the new era, which the book is ushering in, is one of ‘learning and doing’, where professionals in civil society make informed decisions about their work. It is a well thought through set of best practices organized around the main principles of NGO governance: accountability towards the community; formal structure; separation of governance and management; NGOs as mission-driven organizations; ethics and professionalism; and responsible resource management. While it is an attempt to link theory with practice, the guide is far from being overloaded with theory, and presents the main concepts in the context of civil society in Central and Eastern Europe.
There are some difficulties, however. For example, the concept of good governance is defined as ‘a transparent decision-making process in which the leadership of a non-profit organization, in an effective and accountable way, directs resources and exercises power on the basis of shared values’. Translated into Slavic languages, these terms are more suggestive of the political than the non-profit world. As difficulties begin with conceptualization, it is no wonder that organizations in the region find it hard to internalize and implement the principles of good governance.
Beyond the concepts, however, the guide offers very practical advice on issues such as duties of individual board members and board chair, the role of founders, separation of and relationship between board and staff, writing and revising the mission, setting down organizational policies, development of the board and its role in resource development, and overseeing the financial affairs of the organization. The handbook also includes a checklist which can help organizations rate their board’s performance and take further action in the field of governance.
As a civil society professional working in Romania, I found the handbook enlightening about what has often been an obscure area in the region. Nor is its application confined to Central and Eastern Europe. I would recommend it to anyone involved in the practice and theory of NGO governance anywhere.
Roxana Mirciu is Programme Coordinator, Romanian Association for Community Development. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
A Handbook of NGO Governance
Marilyn Wyatt European Center for Not-for-Profit Law
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