It has been my observation that the business of amateur sport in Canada has become increasingly complex and sophisticated in recent years, yet the governance structures in place to lead amateur sport bodies have lagged behind.
Over the past several years, I have been invited by many national and provincial sport organizations in Canada to assist with governance reform efforts, in order to overcome this gap between governance and operations. For many of these projects, I found it helpful to prepare a discussion paper for the board and staff of these organizations to review in advance. Such a paper did not recommend options or solutions, but rather was intended to stimulate thinking in advance of meetings or workshops that I planned to hold with the leaders of these organizations.
This paper is a generic version of my governance discussion paper, and I am publishing it on our web site because I think it can be a useful reference for everyone.
Theorists of organizational development have studied sport organizations and have proposed three models to describe present-day national sport bodies . These models are insightful because they portray a continuum of change that will be instinctively familiar to those having a history of involvement in amateur sport. These models also reflect differing styles of governance in sport bodies in Canada.
The three models are shown below (this is adapted from the footnoted reference) :
|‘Archetype’ or model||Kitchen Table||Board Room||Executive Office|
|Orientation||Private, voluntary, non-profit||Private, voluntary, non-profit
|Private, voluntary, non-profit|
|Domain||Broad: mass participation to high performance
|Competitive sport||Narrow: high performance sport|
|Principles of organizing||Decision-making by volunteer executives||Decision-making by volunteer board, assisted by professional staff
|Decision-making by professional staff, assisted by volunteer board|
|Planning||Little coordination||Some planning
|Criteria for effectiveness||Member preferences, quality services||Administrative efficiency||International success|
Many national sport governing bodies have recently, or are currently, engaged in efforts to make a transition from the Board Room to the Executive Office archetype. This parallels a trend in the governance of sport generally, which has witnessed an increased level of professionalism through the late 1980s and 1990s, an attempt to become more policy-driven and to separate the governance and management functions, and in some cases, a transfer of executive authority from volunteers to staff.
Governance changes in national sport bodies
In recent years several small as well as large national sport bodies have undergone governance changes, in an effort to be more efficient, accountable, responsive and policy-driven. The concept of a “corporate board structure” has held appeal for sport leaders, who for some time have been required to “do more with less” and strive to be more business-like in managing their affairs. In many cases, the traditional structure of a Canadian sport organization (typified by a large board that is representative of the provinces or geographic regions of Canada) has given way to smaller, leaner and more effective boards of ten members or less.
Recently, the Canadian Cerebral Palsy Sports Association has undergone a governance reform project. Using the maxim ‘form follows function’, a number of needs, wants, principles and issues were identified by the members of this organization and used as the starting point to discuss changes to board and committee structure. A fairly cumbersome board of over 20 persons representing various provincial interests as well as individuals was redesigned to create a National Council, supported by three functional committees and two further councils representing provincial interests and athlete interests. Detailed terms of reference and operating procedures were prepared for each element of the new governance structure.
A few years ago, Swimming Natation Canada successfully completed a governance review that resulted in a transition from a 25-member, traditional representative board to a corporate board of seven directors elected directly from the membership. A unique feature of the new model is drawn from Australian Swimming, and involves each director being completely independent: upon election to the board, each director must relinquish all other roles or positions they hold in the sport of swimming. Along with changes to board structure, Swimming Natation Canada has also introduced standing committees that reflect a corporate approach to issues of policy, audit, human resources and succession. The executive committee has been eliminated.
Equine Canada (formerly the Canadian Equestrian Federation) has made a transition from an unwieldy board size of about 50 to a lean and powerful board of eleven. Formerly, the Board of Equine Canada contained appointed representatives from all geographic regions as well as from all equine sport disciplines. The new model abandons geographic representation and provides for elected representation from activity areas including the sport of horses, the enjoyment of horses and the business of horses. In essence, a much smaller group of volunteers comes from a much broader base and this has served to strengthen, rather than weaken the federation. This transition was not easy – an 11th hour negotiated compromise to secure support from provincial associations was the creation of a Presidents’ Council that elects two positions onto the Board.
Field Hockey Canada has gone from a traditional board structure of 21 persons to a small board of nine. The Board structure is similar to that of Athletics, where a larger share of directors are elected, while a smaller share are appointed by the other directors, once elected, to ensure that the required expertise and experience is contained within the Board. As with Swimming Natation Canada, there is no executive committee.
Many other national sport organizations have moved away from the traditional model to small boards of ten members or less (Basketball, Ringette, Fencing, Speed Skating, Curling, Freestyle Ski and Triathlon for example) and in some cases these are structured around sport disciplines such as in the sport of canoeing where the Board is organized around sprint, marathon and whitewater disciplines. The smallest board is probably that of Diving Canada (5 directors), perhaps the only national sport organization that operates more purely along the lines of the Carver model of governance.
Models of board structure
There are a number of different models of board structure. The following descriptions might assist sport leaders as they deliberate on ideal future governance models.
Boards may be small or large
Boards may be advisory, administrative-governing or policy-governing
Boards may be representative or expert
Boards may be elected or appointed
Board members may be institutional representatives or individuals
Responsibilities of directors
Regardless of an organization’s governance structure, the responsibilities of a board and the duties of the directors of a board are fairly constant. These duties and responsibilities are set out in the legislation under which an organization is incorporated and this legislation is similar across the provinces/territories and between provincial and federal levels.
Legally, every director has a duty of diligence, of loyalty and of obedience . It is the duty of loyalty that presents the greatest challenge to many directors on boards of national sport organizations, or on boards of multi-sport organizations, because the interests of the national or multi-sport organization must, by law, always take precedence over any other interest, including the interests of the association or group that the director may represent. Directors involved with more than one organization (provincial association and national association, or national association and multi-sport association, or even all three!) may find that they cannot be loyal to both and thus may find in the course of most items of business that they are conflicted.
The issue of independence of directors was very important to Swimming Natation Canada in their governance review.
Lessons learned from governance restructuring
Scholars on organizational theory have researched and written extensively about change within organizations. There are four main areas in which organizations can undergo change (these concepts are adapted from the scholarly literature to suit the sport context):
It is the fourth category, systems and structures, that is usually the focus of sport organization’s review of governance. It is also my observation that change in the first three areas (products and services, technology and people) cannot be effectively implemented without corresponding changes in the systems and structures that underpin the entire operation, including board design and committee structures.
Theorists also say that change within organizations is resisted primarily for four reasons:
All of these forces of resistance are likely to be encountered in any initiative to change the governance systems and structures of a sport organization. However, my experience as a facilitator in governance restructuring has shown me that the essential ingredient to successful change is trust. Like goodwill, trust takes years to build and a mere instant to lose. There may be a host of good reasons to make changes in an organization’s governance structure, but if trust is not there then the effort may be futile.
Substantively, it has been my experience that a major stumbling block for any organizational change within a national sport organization has been the issue of geographical representation on the board. This is the strong foundation upon which all national sport organizations have historically been built. National sport bodies that have moved to smaller boards have all eliminated provincial representation at the board – which has required that large groups of people make significant sacrifices.
However, the reward has been, in many cases, more responsive and more effective policy-governing boards whose focus is national and international performance. By designing an effective structure of active committees, improved communication and collaboration among provinces on technical and domestic issues can also be achieved.
The purpose of this discussion paper has usually been to prepare people for a frank discussion on governance reform. In preparation for this discussion, participants are asked to consider the following:
Ideally, the result of this frank discussion will be agreement on motivations and desired outcomes, consensus on a preferred governance model or models, and a plan of action for moving forward on governance renewal.
The phrase ‘form follows function’ is attributed to Louis Sullivan, an influential American architect associated with the Chicago School, and a mentor of Frank Lloyd Wright.
 Kikulis, L., Slack. T. & Hinings, C.R. (1992). “Institutionally specific design archetypes: a framework for understanding change in national sport organizations” International Review for the Sociology of Sport 27:343-370. Note that these authors did not research models of governance as part of the archetypes, and thus board types are not shown in the chart.
 Duty of diligence is the duty to act reasonably, prudently, in good faith and with a view to the best interests of the organization; duty of loyalty is the duty to not use one’s position as a director to further private interests; and duty of obedience is the duty to act within the governing bylaws of the organization and within the laws and rules that apply to the organization.
Originally published: Centre for Sport and Law website (September 2006)