EVOLUTIONARY GOVERNANCE: Part II: Practices

A new model of nonprofit leadership for uncertain times. (Read Part I: Principles)

Bright green leaves growing on vines that crawl over top of an old tree trunk.

By Vanessa LeBourdais, Kate Sutherland, Valerie Nishi, Jeff Vander Clute and Jonathan Varkul of DreamRider Productions Society.

In part one of this series, we wrote about how we applied the transformational approach of DreamRider Productions’ environmental programming to uncover a new model of governance we call “Evolutionary Governance.” Now we’ll explore the practices that we use to live these principles every day. We believe that how we are with each other is fundamental to everything: being precedes doing.

There are three core practices that are essential to this work:

1Hold a deep connection to the organization. Each Board member’s relationship with DreamRider is an integrated part and expression of their life as a whole. Each Board member holds a deeper connection with DreamRider that transcends time and place. Board meetings are nested within a wider and profound commitment to and engagement with the essence of DreamRider.

What is made possible:

For the Board: enables more ideas, opportunities, and actions for growth and vitality to flow at any time.

For the Executive Director: “I feel held in this space all the time. I don’t feel alone.”

2 Do inner work on self. Each member of the Board, and the ED, does ongoing personal inner work on themselves: tending to the issues, traumas, and patterns that arise in themselves in response to the work of the Board and the issues arising in DreamRider. Each person continues to develop themselves to build self-awareness and the capacity for empathy, compassion, authenticity, emotional intelligence and reflective capacity.

What is made possible:

For the Board: Board decisions stay connected to what’s real and relevant, rather than to egos and past traumas. Taking responsibility for inner work shifts perspectives and ways of being, from centering the individual to focusing on the larger system of needs and opportunities, and enables individual and collective appreciation of diverse backgrounds and perspectives, feelings of gratitude and forgiveness and positive regard. We can also achieve greater levels of trust, resilience, learning agility, and creative capacity.

For the ED: “My issues are not seen as barriers to the work, but as part of the work. We are always dealing with reality, not people’s projections. This makes the work phenomenally simpler, easier and more joyous.”

3 Do inner work on the organization. Dr. Otto Sharmer, MIT lecturer and author of Theory U, calls this “tending to the field.” Each Board member does inner work from time to time between and during meetings to tend to the DreamRider energy and to the overall well-being of the organization on an energetic level; creating a container or holding space for the potential of the organization, and working simultaneously from the individual, Board, organizational, community to the universal fields.

What is made possible:

For the Board: Sensing risk and opportunity before “crisis”. Feeling deep connection and personal relevance to the work as we see our inner work and DR’s inner work as interconnected and in a unified field.

For the ED: “When the whole is tended to, then you’re seeing as much of what’s affecting the org as possible. This means everyone in the system is heard, all the voices are tended to, there is no hierarchy of whose voice is more valued. This fosters tremendous resilience for the org, and keeps the Board intimately connected to its work. Decisions made from connection are consistently welcomed by staff.”

Further Practices of Evolutionary Governance:

An accessible version of the table in Word can be downloaded here.

Table — an accessible document is linked above for text readers.

“Our entire future may depend on learning to listen, listen without assumptions or defenses.”
― adrienne maree brown

A note on voting and Robert’s Rules: DreamRider’s Board continues to attend to its fiduciary responsibilities — budget approvals, policy design and the like. It votes on relevant matters according to Robert’s Rules but recognizes the limitations of this system. The Board holds these methods lightly as they are insufficient to bring the needed breadth and depth to complex and changing realities. The rules are grounded in the rational, logical and analytical approaches of the past and not in the intuitive and emergent capacities relevant today. They need to be held lightly as they can elicit habits of mind that are not reflective of what is needed, and can prevent us from seeing what is emergent and real.

Through our principles and practices, objections and concerns are shared early, so voting becomes a rather proforma recognition of the consensus we’ve already built together.

WHO is as important as HOW. As well as having relevant professional capacities such as business acumen, social innovation expertise, accounting, etc., when we are recruiting for the DreamRider Board, we take care that there will be a good fit between new members and our approach to governance (and to everything!). So far we have articulated these distinct competencies and related criteria. The person needs to be:

  • Comfortable with ambiguity and emergence
  • Not ego-driven (as in they have made the shift from “ego” to “eco”, or from prioritizing personal interest to caring for the whole.)
  • Intuitive
  • Trusting of life, open, and adaptive, vs. need for control and planning
  • Oriented to “work light” (as more easeful and effective than working hard or working smart)
  • Self-aware and mature
  • Curious and open to nonlinear solutions

In addition, our ideal board is highly diverse, anti-racist, and brings professional expertise to the table.

Five young “Apprentice Planet Protectors” strike a pose in their colourful superhero costumes on a wooden pier.
Five young “Apprentice Planet Protectors” strike a pose in their colourful superhero costumes on a wooden pier.
DreamRider’s Apprentice Planet Protectors, as featured in the Planet Protector Academy program.

A great culture can do great things

The practices above are in essence simple, and not necessarily easy. They require a willingness to face what is within us that blocks us from what wants to emerge, to let go of our “monkey mind”, to be willing to just be and do nothing, if that’s what’s required.

We have a visionary Executive Director who is scaling innovative, transformational and deeply impactful work. She feels tremendously supported, listened to, and guided by the Board.

In 2019, the possibility arose to bring our work to India, and we were able to rapidly pivot to take advantage of the opportunity. Upon assessment of the opportunity and the inherent risks, we turned our strategic plan around ‘on a dime’, and are now discovering tremendous support from unexpected quarters.

Likewise, during COVID, within mere days the organization pivoted our programming from being entirely located in schools to being entirely live webcast to children at home, reaching over 2,600 kids across Canada in the spring. 99% of parents and teachers said they’d recommend our COVID “Home Edition” programming, and 80% of children said it not only was turning them into environmental changemakers, they were also happier and calmer during the pandemic as well.

Four images of kids: two pretend to be superheroes, one draws, one makes a superhero pose, one puts compost in a bin.
Four images of kids: two pretend to be superheroes, one draws, one makes a superhero pose, one puts compost in a bin.
Kids participating in our “Home Edition” during school closures from COVID-19

These pivots — and the tremendous impact we hope they bring — were made possible by the alignment of the Board and staff, brought about by this emergent governance practice. Normalized thinking couldn’t have yielded these outcomes or facilitated them. The ease with which we can scale impact is beyond our current paradigms.

Over and over again, people who encounter DreamRider mention the kindness, humaneness and efficiency of our organizational culture from our team to our film sets to our Board. When we act in alignment with each other, ourselves, the earth, and our community, we don’t waste time on drama, ego, petty games and infighting. The resulting efficiency, fun and joyfulness facilitate our small team to accomplish mighty things.

How Can I Get Started?

While these governance practices may feel very different and uncomfortable compared to what you are currently practicing, there are simple ways to start.

First, though, know that there is no one cookie-cutter solution. Be aware of your unique context. Explore what governance practices are currently serving your Board and what is holding you back. Have the courage to experiment and be informed by what is being learned together. Consider what will make sense and bring value to your shared endeavour.

1Begin with a self-awareness practice that helps you get grounded and present. Taking time for this is crucial to your work. Think of an experience you’ve had of joy and connection with a group of people. The taste of that experience is the flavour of our work.

2 Share this article with a champion on your Board or your whole Board and host a conversation.

a) What stood out from the article?

b) What was surprising?

c) What does it make you think about our current practices?

d) How might these approaches provide value to our Board?

e) What might be possible if we worked in this way?

f) What practice are we willing to experiment with?

3Experiment with 2–3 practices and monitor them for feedback and impact. For example, starting meetings with silence and a check-in.

a) There are many resources on silence, stillness or mindfulness practice as a way to get centred, clear and present. You can specify an amount of time (1–2 minutes if people are new to this) or leave open-ended until you feel people are ready to begin.

b) Personal check-ins are a great way to get people present and connected. Encourage people to be open and authentic in sharing a brief update — not, “what you’ve done” but, “where you’re at”. Connect people with you, here, now, as you are.

4 Pay attention to the sensations in your body as you experiment with these practices. Stay present with your physical being and just try to notice any discomfort; rather than acting on it, try to just relax and be with it.

5Take this offering, try it, adapt it, and please, tell us what you discover!

Further Reading

brown, adrienne maree. (2017) Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds. Chico, CA. AK Press.

Laloux, Frederic. (2014) ReInventing Organizations: A Guide to Creating Organization Inspired by the Next Stage of Human Consciousness. Brussels, Belgium. Nelson Parker.

Obolensky, Nick, (2014) Complex Adaptive Leadership: Embracing Paradox and Uncertainty. Gower Books.

Scharmer, O.C. (2016) Theory U: Leading from the Future as it Emerges (Second Edition), San Francisco, CA Berret-Koehler.

Sutherland, Kate. (2017) We Can Do This! 10 Tools to Unleash our Collective Genius. Vancouver, Canada. Incite Press.

Torbert, W. R. (2004) Action Inquiry: The secret of timely and transforming leadership. San Francisco, CA Berret-Koehler.

Wilber, K. (2008) Integral Life Practice

Zander, Benjamin. (2000) The Art of Possibility. Penguin Books.

Recognized by Ashoka Changemakers as a global leader in digital environmental education, Vanessa is a producer, director, writer and anti-racist activist.