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Oh, yuck—governance. What could be duller? Wait!—if you lend me an ear for a short essay on governance , I may convince you that governance in co-ops and all kinds of other community serving non-profit organizations is the most vital and fascinating topic you have considered for a long time.

Governance: surprisingly there is a long list of community serving organizations like Mountain Equipment Co-op that fail because in their zeal to serve our communities they brush over really important governance issues. I remember a time, twenty years ago–before John Carver introduced his ground breaking policy governance model of how to nurture effective organizations–when community newspapers were full of news about yet another organization that was going under/closing up shop because they were confounded by governance models that almost inexorably lead to failure of boards and the organizations they serve.

Sometimes governance by things as crucial as hospital boards got so convoluted and mixed up that board members were out roaming the halls of the hospital (substitute any other community service organization) either doing the work of staff or instructing staff—often with exasperatingly contradictory instructions.
The hallmark of organizations that are still stuck in dysfunctional models of governance is boards that “recommend” members of their organizations vote for particular candidates seeking election to the board because those candidates have information/skills in particular fields related to the operation of the organization. On the surface it sounds good but what time has shown—as in MEC, etc, etc—is that effective boards clearly describe the ends(purpose) they want the organization to serve but do not meddle in the day to day running of the organization. They focus on the larger goals (ENDS) and hire a competent manager to, provide the means of accomplishing those ends. The other crucial role for the board is to very clearly focus on evaluating whether management is accomplishing the ends the board has described. Defining the goals/ends the organization serves is not a once and forget it sort of thing. Keeping the ends up to date is the way that organizations stay relevant to changing times.

Ok, enough dratty theory let’s look at how a board dedicated to policy governance has allowed the Unitarian Service Committee to adapt so beautifully to the needs of the world’s poorest people in a most remarkable and effective way.

Founded in 1945 by Dr. Lotta Hitschmanova the Unitarian Service Committee (USC) was dedicated to relief and reconstruction of war-ravaged countries in Europe and, increasingly in Africa where, war, drought, and corruption left many with insufficient resources to thrive or, in many cases to even survive.

Dr. Hitschmanova used her connections with Unitarians to motivate thousands of Canadians and even Americans to make the world a “better, kinder place by sending large amounts of food, clothes, supplies and money to those who were suffering.

The example set by the Unitarian Service Committee not only marshaled a large amount of resources to help those in desperate need, it also inspired others to set up similar organizations and by the end of the Twentieth Century there were many organizations stepping up to do relief work around the world.

Here is where acutely focused governance came in. The Unitarian Service Committee board, which was focused on the ends they wished to accomplish, recognized that the role they had been filling was now being taken over by other world relief organizations. Rather than provide redundant services while competing for resources with other world relief organizations the USC, in 2007, did a very thoughtful/careful reevaluation of the ends they serve. Drawing on their knowledge of the effects of famine in Africa, especially Ethiopia, the USC (now Seed Change) redefined its “ends” (mission) to the highly effective/successful “Seeds of Survival” program which works with farmers and communities to grow their own healthy food using local seeds and sustainable farming practices. In 2013 the board revised their “ends” statement to include working to empower small, mostly organic, farmers in Canada.

Very few organizations manage to stay relevant, vibrant and impactful for 75 years, but–by focusing on the ends the USC wished to accomplish–the USC board has managed to keep the USC keenly relevant to the needs of a changing world by refocusing its ends to acting to ameliorate food systems that create injustice, damage the environment and put human health at risk.

A board focused on doing the work rather than defining the ends would have had the USC go on competing in the crowded world relief funding efforts, but—instead– the USC is now an organization keenly focused on the very real needs of both our Earth and its peoples.

Under the “Seeds of Survival” program the USC is working to design a mutually sustaining relationship between the Earth and its peoples. Where today’s food system creates injustice, damages the environment, and puts our health at risk, “Seeds of Survival” is working to define and implement an alternative to large scale industrial agriculture which profits from keeping land and seeds in the hands of a few while accelerating biodiversity loss, soil degradation, and climate change.

“Seeds of Survival” partners with family farmers and like-minded nonprofits to reclaim the power of growing food for the good of people, communities and our Earth.

Under its new mandate (ends) the USC “Seeds of Survival” effort is delivering programs around the world to help farmers improve their incomes, defend their rights, and grow better food for all.

In Canada the USC is working to oppose Government of Canada intentions to remove the rights plant breeders have over the crops they develop and the criteria for which crop varieties are protected by the plant breeders’ rights.
To learn more about or contribute to the Seeds of Change program go to https://weseedchange.org/see-the-impact/global-impact/ .

If the Mountain Equipment Co-op had focused on the ends they believe members want the co-op to serve instead of trying to stack elections to get management focused members on the board our precious co-op would not be selling out to the Americans. It would be a different co-op but it would not be bankrupt and it would, still, be member owned.

Norm Reynolds