In community sector publications and newsletters I see a lot of information promoting the importance of having a board of directors. Although there definitely comes a point in the growth of an organisation where a board is a necessary and important step, we see many small community initiatives whose boards seem to take more time and energy than is merited by the level of contribution. For many smaller organisations, a mentor (or a few) may be a better solution.

This is not to say that having a board is a bad idea; rather, since the value of boards is well articulated and advocated, we feel it is important to tease out the other side of the argument.

I managed to catch Jimi, OHO’s CEO, after the most recent OHO board meeting and asked him some questions about when a board may not actually be necessary.

The crucial question is, in his mind, at what point the bureaucratic processes of maintaining a board actually become worth the energy. With recruitment, meetings 4 or 5 times per year, and follow up on either side of each meeting, it is easy for this process to take up valuable time and resources and not give any real value to the organisation. Of course, it is also easy to dismiss painstaking administrative processes out of hand. The real wisdom comes in telling the difference.

“It’s important to remember that these bureaucratic models have arisen out of the need to manage really large organisations like the national postal service and companies like Microsoft – behemoths that obviously require protocol and governance from ‘on high’ to keep them on the right track,” he says. “Social ventures are often more ‘adhocracies’ where dynamic conversation between innovative, passionate people intimately involved in the project on the ground is the place that governance naturally arises from.”

Providing clear governance and accountability are key aims of any board. The great advantage of having guidance from outside the structure is that it can provide a clear, unsullied perspective, but the drawback is that sometimes the people inside the organisation really do know what is best.

Senior management is always intimately involved in providing governance, but at some point a more objective perspective is needed to guide the growth of an organisation. A special wisdom held in community sector is that it is often possible to get the same outcome with fewer resources by collaborating with people who have the skills that you need, rather than recreating more processes and engaging more people to work inside the organisation.

Drawing on this, Jimi argues that for many small community initiatives, a few mentors can effectively replace a board, with much less involvement:

“Mentors are generally overlooked as an important support for organisations of any size,” he explains. “Building supportive relationships with experts in a number of fields can give you access to a wide range of skills and experience in areas your venture may not have developed.” And generally, experts love to share their opinions and knowledge –especially with small ventures working to make a real difference in the lives of disadvantaged people.

Key advantages of mentors are that they take much less time to manage, and that they are easier to recruit than board members (especially for volunteer positions). Organisations like One Health Organisation can provide mentoring on organisational and community sector questions, and individual business, legal or project-specific (eg acupuncture, nutrition) mentors can be secured.

“On the other hand” Jimi qualified, “mentors rarely develop the kind of emotional buy in that board members have and is so crucial for leveraging their fundraising and networking potential.”

Boards are not always a bad idea – quite the contrary. A board of directors is often a crucial aspect of a maintaining a large organisation’s direction and accountability, however there are often times when small organisations could be just as well served by securing mentors, removing much of the time and hassle of a board.