Building blocks: How can organisations build a strong framework?

Buzzwords at social entrepreneurship conferences can be predictable: collaboration, impact measurement, leadership, changemakers. Let me try one that might not have been on the tip of your tongue: corporate governance structures?

During the first peer learning session of the Ashoka India Future Forum, this was exactly the topic debated during a lively panel moderated by Aarti Madhusudan, Founder of Governance Counts, about how to structure ethical and effective boards of directors, what makes a board “good”, and the relevance of corporate governance. 

In general, non-profits must set up a board when they are founded, but there is flexibility in the composition and role of a board. Do you invite friends and family, or do you look for outside expertise and high profile names? Do you involve the board with all decisions, or do you lean on them only for occasional guidance? The three panelists shared their advice. 

Shaheen Mistri, Founder of Akanksha and CEO of Teach for India, two organizations that aim to provide excellent education for India’s youth, has deep experience both in working with, creating, and serving on boards. In her words, the role of a board is to help do three things: 1) envision, 2) engage and 3) ensure. “A good board asks tough questions, is engaged with the mission, pushes you to new limits, and holds you accountable,” she said. “They make sure that what you say is what you do.”

Piyush Tewari, Founder & President of the Save Life Foundation, discussed how his board strengthens his team by bringing domain expertise and operational knowledge. His foundation enables bystander care for victims of road accidents and requires police and government interactions, so inviting police officers and doctors to his governing and advisory boards added credibility and value. One certainty, he felt, was that you cannot have family on your board, especially if your objective is to have a global impact. A strong board needs an ethical framework of transparency and accountability, and it will evolve over time. 

Anshu Gupta, Founder of GOONJ, which turns secondhand clothing and materials into a valuable resource, reminded the group that although a board can help make key decisions and guide vision, it cannot be too controlling. Ultimately, your team implements the vision on the ground. If your team does not believe in the board’s vision or feel empowered to make decisions, your organization will be impacted. A mark of GOONJ’s success is that Anshu can be at the Ashoka conference, while his team provides disaster relief in Uttarakhand. He also added that although it is tempting to build a board of high profile names, the more famous, the more distant they are from the team.   

The key to building a good board is striking a balance between mission alignment and valuable skills or assets that can aid the organization. “The common values on the board are very important,” said Shaheen. “Being positive about a sense of possibility is very important. We would never take someone who was very cynical or didn’t believe in scale, no matter what their domain expertise.” Similar to Bill Drayton’s message in the opening plenary that a good organization is made up of a team of teams, so is a board.

Few organizations have time to look internally and prioritize capacity building, but investing in good governance can help guarantee that each Ashoka Fellows legacy will last. 


By Eleanor Horowitz