The Guv'nor: It's a trust thing
In this latest Guv'nor column, Bob Thust talks good governance with social change leader Immy Kaur. Together the pair explore challenging preconceptions, getting away from ideal definitions of a ‘diverse’ board member – and the upcoming reinvention of Impact Hub Birmingham.
We’ve built everything based on no trust – if we are going to change anything we have to build from a different starting point,” says Immy Kaur (pictured), the remarkable co-founder of Impact Hub Birmingham.
We’re talking about what good governance could or perhaps should look like in a world facing increasingly urgent challenges of rising inequality and existential threat. It’s an interview I’ve wanted to do for some time given Immy’s pioneering work and straight-talking approach.
At first glance Impact Hub Birmingham appears to be a collaborative workspace for social purpose people and organisations (part of the international Impact Hub network). Yet that misses the point – their mission is ‘to help build a fairer, more equal and just city’ and that means they are constantly shifting to create a sustainable business model to deliver against that goal.
Indeed, while the mission remains, the Impact Hub itself is closing next month – to be transitioned to Civic Square, but more on that later.
Her point about having built a system without any reliance on trust goes right to the heart of the governance challenges I’ve been writing about in previous columns. What she is referring to is not just legal structures and the board, but an entire model built on formally constituted organisations with traditional hierarchies supported by standard systems, processes, checks and balances. “Most of what passes as good governance offers no individual agency, no liberation – it leads to people feeling disillusioned, clocking in and clocking out. It doesn’t encourage people to take personal responsibility or personally invest,” she argues. “It starts from assuming the worst in everything and everyone, and mitigates for that, rather than designing for the best possible outcome, and assuming the best in everyone.”
‘Most of what passes as good governance offers no individual agency, no liberation – it leads to people feeling disillusioned, clocking in and clocking out’
I share that in my experience good governance cannot be reduced to a set of well-designed processes and organisational charts – it relies on strong and shared values, the quality of relationships. That means every organisation needs to have its own unique approach which moves as the people change, as the world changes. “Yes, absolutely,” she nods, “but when you are fighting to find a new path that recognises this it’s not easy to put this on a simple piece of paper for funders or partners – people want straightforward solutions and keep advising or compelling you to sit within their preconceived idea of how it’s always been done.”
I wonder whether as a society we tend to value systems and process too highly – and whether that is in part a result of our patriarchal society which may value more traditionally ‘masculine’ command and control approaches? “I think that’s possibly true, but the whole thing goes much deeper than that – we live in an entire system built on mass extraction, exploitation and oppression. We have a colonial legacy that leads to deep mistrust on all sides about intentions – what we actually have even in the social sector is an approach to governance which, for all the warm words and nice values statements, is built along the same lines. In the end this serves to perpetuate the same problems rather than tackle the urgent issues.”
We talk about our own experiences with various boards and how all too often board roles are seen as opportunities to grandstand in the name of ‘giving back’. “Those people that say they are taking these roles on in order to give back, most likely means they have taken too much in the first place,” she says.
Immy also points out that boards are often used as a means to extract free labour rather than to add value to governance – which we agree is especially problematic when it applies to black or brown people, or others with lived experience of social injustice reinforcing as it does the exploitation narrative: “There is this basic idea that marginalised voices have tonnes to learn from all the opportunities that can be provided by being on a board – from training to exposure, so why wouldn’t they want to join?
“Yet, many outstanding leaders of colour, for example, are shifting economic paradigms, saying ‘no’ to business as usual, developing bold new frameworks and ways of organising. So, what I find happens is they aren’t welcome because they don’t appreciate the opportunity, or a typical board meeting doesn’t create the experimental space to imagine new ways of doing things but follows ‘standard’ rules so creates a space where people can feel ignored, small or in some way lesser. So, power re-asserts itself by policing what sort of ‘diverse’ person it is happy with on its board – one that is grateful, challenges a little but not too much. In order for this to really change, this sort of power dynamic is going to need to radically change.”
‘Power re-asserts itself by policing what sort of ‘diverse’ person it is happy with on its board – one that is grateful, challenges a little but not too much’
This chimes with many people I’ve spoken to and many board rooms I’ve experienced over the years. If we aren’t prepared to challenge this, to change the dynamic and the rules, is it any wonder we have such a diversity problem in the social sector?
I raise the topic of conflicts of interest and how that too can be used to justify the need for a distant board of professionals, rather than a more diverse group of people directly involved in the work (this has come up again and again in my recent work, explored in more detail in the podcast “Agenda Item One: Fish and chips on the porch”). “That is an issue I’ve experienced, too,” says Immy. “You want people at every level that have skin in the game – you can always buy in professional distance, but that direct engagement in the mission is vital. If they don’t have that then what are they doing there?”
I’m keen to explore the experience of governance with the Impact Hub itself. Around two years ago the Hub was asked to conduct a governance review as a condition of funding from the Barrow Cadbury Trust. Initially, the usual suggestions were made about bringing in more professional experience, reviewing the legal model and tightening internal risk management. It was suggested that a governance expert be brought in to support that process. “You often get an automatic response from funders who want you to fit into a box they can easily understand because they don’t want to do the work to try and reimagine what it could look like,” says Immy. “For me tackling this stuff isn’t just incidental to or an enabler to the core mission, it is absolutely part of creating the kind of system we want to see – so I didn’t want to just assume that a usual approach was right for us.”
To their credit the Barrow Cadbury Trust listened and provided the Hub with funding that allowed them much greater freedom to explore governance than was originally considered. In the end it was not so a much a review as a process of co- creation between staff and stakeholders over a period of months, supported by a design agency called We Are Snook: “We were able to involve everyone right from funders, key stakeholders, the board, senior leaders and staff using our core values as a means to deeply explore our approach – who made what kind of decisions, how they were made, what information we all needed to fulfil our roles and responsibilities.”
'We can’t just keep doing what we’ve always done. We need approaches to governance that reconnect with people'. Immy Kaur, co-founder of Impact Hub Birmingham.
The result went much wider than a traditional review might have, helping to introduce a range of new tools that everyone could use – one example being a ‘decision wheel’ which included questions agreed together that anyone could use to explore a new idea or project proposal and assess not only its mission alignment but implications for finances, risk management, accountability and oversight.
“At first there was some confusion and resistance – people just weren’t used to taking or being given personal responsibility,” says Immy. “But in the end the outcomes and tools we created were understood and adopted much more readily than if they had been imposed from the top down. What’s more, they were designed to actively reinforce our values, not work against them. When we got new people to go through those values they truly understood their power and authenticity.”
Immy is at pains to point out that all of this does not make her ‘anti-governance’ or ‘anti systems’ and process. She says: “We do need proper processes and protections, we do need robust legal systems especially as we grow – and society as a whole needs them to prevent institutional racism, as just one example,” she says. “It’s just that they alone are not the whole story – especially if all we do is cut and paste from what has always been done.” She also points out that she isn’t necessarily arguing against hierarchy: “Community ownership, for example, can also have its down sides – it can take time and money, which you probably don’t have, can be easily be overtaken by different agendas, can itself lead to risk aversion.”
So, I ask, what is the answer?
“I’m not sure there is a simple answer. What I am sure of is that we can’t just keep doing what we’ve always done. We need approaches to governance that reconnect with people, that aren’t just about traditional organisations but are about the mission.”
‘It was time to make a deeper, smarter and more long-term investment of our collective time, energy and resources’
The point about not just being traditional organisations interested me, especially because Impact Hub itself is now closing and transitioning to something new, called Civic Square. “We’ve taken the decision because in part we could see many £100,000s we have spent going straight to landlords based abroad with very little interest in what is happening in the city,” she says. “Our conversations with so many of our stakeholders led us to believe that it was time to make a deeper, smarter and more long-term investment of our collective time, energy and resources. The mission remains, the connection to our values is still there – that’s what’s important and because of how we have approached running and governing the Impact Hub, closing down and starting afresh in this way has felt much more possible and natural.”
Reflecting on this, I tell Immy that I can’t see many traditional boards that have been so closely attuned to the mission or look this far beyond the aim of self-preservation.
“We need real focus and investment at every level so we can work together to reimagine what governance looks like,” she says. “In the end a system is just a collection of stories we tell ourselves – so it’s time we start telling a different story, one that begins with mission, with values and with trust, rather than a lack of it.”
It’s an important and powerful message, don’t you think?
Photo credits: Thom Bartley