Lately it seems our website postings are preoccupied with governance and social media - whatever happened to the sport and the law? The reality is, the law remains at the root of almost everything we do as sport administrators and sport leaders. There is no escaping it. Whatever it is - organizing competitions, high performance planning, selecting athletes for carding or for teams, staffing your office, structuring a sponsorship deal, creating partnerships with other entities, contracting outside services, convening your annual general meeting, sending national teams abroad - if you get it wrong, there will most likely be legal consequences.
Governance is no different and has a strong legal foundation. And National Sport Organizations (NSOs) are right to turn their mind to governance these days. Some organizations are beginning governance reviews, while others are embarking on strategic plans that include a governance component. This is prudent, given that new legislation is coming that will require all NSOs to make some changes to their governance structures, and will require some NSOs to make significant changes. As a result, we are in discussions with many NSOs about the new legal landscape for federal corporations. These discussions inspire me to share some of my more recent reflections on sport governance.
This is the definition of governance that I have used at the Sport Law & Strategy Group over the years: Governance = the systems and structures an organization uses to control its general operations, programs and activities. But I have learned that governance is more than just mechanics, and this bare-bones definition needs to be enhanced: Governance = the systems and structures an organization uses to control its general operations, programs and activities. These systems and structures make it possible to: hold a board of directors to account, promote fairness and transparency, support stewardship and integrity, and engage stakeholders. Governance systems and structures provide the means by which organizations make decisions, pursue mandates and goals, deliver programs and services, and meet legal standards.
The IOG (Institute on Governance), a Canadian non-profit think tank on governance issues, says that there is no one theory or model of governance that is better than another. Rather, they prefer to support organizations in finding a purpose-based approach to governance that works for them. When I am asked to suggest best practice models of sport governance, I hesitate - the model of Hockey Canada works for them because of their financial strength, personalities and organizational culture. In contrast, the model used by Diving Plongeon Canada (which is far removed from the Hockey Canada model) works for them as a highly specialized, boutique sport with collaborative technical and administrative leadership.
The IOG recommends that governance reviews and reform should start from a set of principles, and suggest these as a reference point:
These principles make perfect sense and work for everyone. However, my experience is that when we undertake to review governance models, we tend to focus on the physical and tangible elements - the structures and procedures. In other words, we are preoccupied with the governance architecture as opposed to substance and purpose. At the end of the day, the main attribute of a successful and effective board is its board culture, not its architecture. Organizational culture is much harder to change than organizational structure. This suggests that successful governance reform requires a change management approach, careful and patient facilitation, engagement and input of members and stakeholders, and clear communications.
There are lots of written materials available about governance in the non-profit sector (or as we like to say, in the social profit sector). Although it is now 13 years old, the report authored by Ed Broadbent in 1999 on improving governance in the voluntary sector stands the test of time (Building on Strength: Improving Governance and Accountability in Canada's Voluntary Sector). This report describes the active oversight of organizational governance by a board of directors as stewardship. According to Broadbent, effective board stewardship involves eight key tasks:
Still wise advice today.