As you move along an ‘internationalization spectrum’ there are key junctures and considerations to determine what decisions to make. As I wrote in “Going Global for the Greater Good” a number of years ago: “Bringing non-US [or non-domestic] members or representatives of other constituents that your organizations serves onto your board and other volunteer committees can provide a number of benefits. A diversified board or committee creates a broad-based prism for viewing the world, helping to identify and analyze international trends that may affect the organization. At the same time, it sends the message within your organization, to the communites you are working to serve, to your donors and other partners, and to the international community that your organization is truly committee to international engagement.”
To support a client organization in their internationalization efforts, I recently did a series of interviews with senior staff from several NGOs operating internationally to update the themes I outlined in my book. While there have been some more recent changes in the time since I wrote the book, such as more of an emphasis on including representatives from the global south (shift the power), perhaps unsurprisingly many of the basic concepts of internationalizing have stayed the same,
These are some of the major themes from the experiences of the organizations whose representations I interviewed regarding internationalizing their boards and governance as they may be helpful to your organization’s own process:
General Board operations
- Greater inclusivity – When the organization’s board starts with a primarily domestic membership (and the organization serves an international constitutency), at some point a decision may need to be made as to how this board can better incorporate the perspectives of other parts of the organization’s international community. The advantages of taking this step include: more diverse perspectives; greater proximity to understanding the context of service delivery; and enhanced internal and external credibility. These can all lead to more effective impact.
In order to address historical imbalances in power (skewed to the global north or OECD countries), many international NGOs are now also looking to shift more power from traditionally privileged countries to those with traditionally less decision-making influence. It was noted by one organizational representative that if country affiliates bring in increased revenue, this can also help to drive power sharing.
A few examples of organizations that have included more diverse geographic perspectives:
The Internatonal Ombuds Association has had 2-3 board members from outside the US and staff shared “that you have to be intentional about soliciting and considering these board members perspectives so it is not tokenism.”
The International Coaching Federation (ICF) started as a U.S. organization but had an intention to be international and added members from Australia and the UK fairly early on.
In 2014, recognizing the growing need for more equal representation, CARE International committed to a fundamental realignment of its membership by increasing global south representation in decision-making spaces.
- Enhanced global and strategic mindset – If the organization serves an international constituency and/or has an internationally oriented vision (and especially if it started with a board from just one country) it needs to intentionally focus on how the organization can forward its international vision. In order to do so the board needs to think globally and avoid parochialism or tunnel vision.
WaterAid International staff describes the role of their international board as having been a journey, from an original focus on aligning the members, to thinking more strategically/proactively about global leadership. The staff also shared that as the UK is the largest member it has been important for board members to intentionally work to think globally. India became the first country office to complete the transition to a nationally governed local entity with a seat on the international board. They note that having the India CEO has helped to keep the focus on countries where programs are delivered.
- Keeping the vision and values –A clearly defined and articulated vision and mission to guide activities and provide a sense of purpose and direction to staff wherever they work, is considered a good practice in the sector and important to keeping a growing and/or decentralizing organization aligned.
ActionAid International for example, credits the value it places on actions based on respect for democracy and diversity on enhancing its legitimacy and accountability to supporters, collaborators and partners as well as to people living in poverty and excluded people in the countries where it works. Also, that having decisions closer to the communities they work in makes clearer the link between AAI’s vision and its work and helps to keep the whole organization connected.
The International Coaching Federation has striven to stay true to its vision by trying not get pulled into polarizing issues where they have stakeholders on ‘both sides’ of an issue that can be seen as political. Having key questions that the board focuses on can help. One of the questions the ICF board asks itself is “How can we best represent and serve our specific global audience?”
- Logistics– time zones, costs, etc… – These need to be addressed for any stage of internationalizing the board in order for the board to be inclusive, effective and sustainable.
A broad range of time zones can be addressed by rotating times so different sections of the world take on less comfortable times of the day, and having at least one in person meeting a year. In person meetings help to build and nurture relationships, the ‘social glue’ for the organization. It does take additional resources but it is important if an organization is committed to truly operating as an international entity. Even many years ago when I was the executive director of Zonta International, we used to say “We should be able to drop our office anywhere in the world and how we serve our membership would not change.”
- Representation vis a vis ‘at large’ international board membership –There has been more of a movement in this direction over the past years to avoid the challenge of boards getting too large (as the number of organizational members grow) and to help stay focused on the mission and remain strategic.
The Institute of Internal Auditors (IIA) transitioned from a representative board to a competency based board, looking for a balance of needed competencies and geographic diversity.
In 2008 ActionAid International went to a two tiered structure – a strategic board and member assembly. The Assembly includes one representative from each member; the board meets every few months and is small enough to provide governance direction to the secretariat. The Board consists of 7-13 members who are elected as individuals and collectively act and govern in the best interests of AAI as a whole. They do not represent a particular organization or interest.
And as a third example, even as the organization grew, the International Coaching Federation continued to base its governance structure on the merits and skills of the individuals as opposed to representing chapters. It did reduce the size from 16 to 9 to stay strategic.
- Criteria for members (geographic vis a vis ‘profile’) – Many NGOs develop a criteria or profile for board members. This can help to focus the organization on what type of board members will be most helpful to forward the organization’s mission and vision, as well help include a balance of different parts of the world, gender, age and leadership skills. Additionally, boards may look for ability or experience with thinking globally and individuals of global prominence or credibility who can help raise the profile of the organization and/or help with fundraising.
ActionAid International has a specific criteria for members. It includes a balance of regional representation, other diversity and leadership skills.
The Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) has guidelines for Board nominations and a leadership committee that reviews the composition of the Board and chooses individuals who will help fill a identified ‘gap’ ensuring that representatives of all key stakeholders with a good mix of regional and institution type and size.
- Creating a separate international entity – Many NGOs when they internationalize and grow may eventually consider separating the original country board from an international one. Often affiliated entities become members and appoint or elect the international board. This can be a big leap for a nationally based ‘founding’ board to shift some (or much) of its power to an international board.
In 2010 Water Aid UK (which had served as the international board since the alliance was created in 2004) created a separate entity – WaterAid International – with a separate board, elevating the role of the smaller members and recognizing that as they grew the organization would change. They did add in some ‘safeguards’ to make the transition more palatable to the UK Board.
The Institute of Internal Auditors (IIA) is another example of an organization that successfully globalized by creating separate US and global boards. Like Water Aid, they initially gave allowances to the US members for them to agree to the power shift. These included a minimum number of US seats on the global board and a formula for number of seats any country could hold based on a criteria including revenue and number of members.
- Managing Change – Any kind of organizational change can be challenging but when differing cultural perspectives come in to play it is important to be sensitive to these and be transparent about why decisions are being made. Allowing time for organizational leadership, staff and other stakeholders to make the transition is critical.
A long-term Water Aid International staffer shares the lesson to “Be clear on the ‘rules of the game’ (the parameters) before you get into the details so you can refer back to them and manage accountability of decisions and actions/delivery before issues arise.”
A leader in AAI through their transition to a more global board shared about the time needed for the process “I know many people will say ‘surely this all looks like what we could have produced a year ago’ but much is about the process and the buy in.”
When CASE transitioned from an organization with four separate entities in four different regions (US/Canada, Europe/Africa, Asia-Pacific, America Latina) to a single global board they took a year and a half to work through the transition to get full buy-in and give due consideration of the role each Trustee. The CEO cautions that you should “Be prepared to hit snags and delays [especially when different cultures and potentially different structures, regulations or legalities are involved]. Board and local champions can be helpful to work through challenges. Set talking points for Board, staff and key volunteers. Have a clear and consistent detailed communication plan.”
Many other INGO representatives also stressed the need to plan in time (on average a process of a year and ½ to two years) and strong communication to surface potential sources of concern or tension, and to build buy-in.
- New structural approaches
As noted earlier, although the International Coaching Federation (ICF) started in the US they never felt the need to have separate US and international boards. Continuing that sense of ‘finding the best people in their network wherever they are to best support the sector’ it is an example of an organization that made a significant restructure in order to help keep its focus on impact in its sector. In 2019 it created six family organizations, responsible for different aspects of its business (membership, credentials, education, foundation, thought leadership, and coaching in organizations). Each of them has its own board and all are tied together by legally binding Memorandum of Agreement. The whole organization, referred to as ONEICF, is governed by a Global Board of Directors. It is composed of one representative of each of the Family Organizations, plus up to five Directors at Large.
Its CEO shares “In the 4th year of this structure, we finally see how well it works. The Families are very focused on their own areas and yet they leverage each other for the better service to our stakeholders. It is complex but workable”.