‘Refactoring’ Your Nonprofits Governance – A New Culture For Proactive Internal Improvements.

The expression “cutting of red tape” is something that has been mainly reserved by politicians and corporate CEO’s alike. More often than not they are referring to the reduction of bureaucratic largesse which can sometimes slow down action but depending on the context, delivery and ultimately influence of those making the calls, it can also be used as a cloaked rationale for the reduction or removal of protective standards or regulations.

At the end of the day there is good red tape – the type that has checks, balances and acts as a form of procedural watchdog, and there are indeed good cases for the removal of unnecessary bureaucracy that has either become duplicated across jurisdictions or has become outdated or obsolete in an ever evolving society. Laws and regulations can become dated and that’s something that warrants review. Just take Florida Statute 876.12 which prohibits wearing masks or hoods covering the face in public – something that seemed strange in 2019 and even more so when we entered into a full blown global pandemic.

When it comes to tech there is definitely a case for further regulation, yet that is more from a reactionary standpoint as tech advances are far outpacing the legislative branches ability to make informed decisions on things that are continuing to create mass upheaval in industries all across our economy. I mean, since 2000 one of the fastest bills I could find that went from introduction to enactment was the National Do-Not-Call Registry back in 2003 that took 6 weeks to pass.

Take electric scooters for example. Just a couple of years ago they were just an expensive niche market, and then overnight there were hundreds adorning the streets of every major U.S. city (or littering depending on who you asked). Local laws have been pieced together as they began to understand this new mode of transportation, knowing that fully regulating them straight away might end up stifling something that could become an integral part of an urban active transport mix.

So what mechanisms might exist for society to move beyond band-aid policies and ordinances, and more importantly see more good red-tape moves that won’t simply be unravelled or repealed when a new administration comes to power? 

The solutions to how we deal with tech regulations that affect our communities might actually come from the methodologies that fuel the tech space itself. Refactoring.

In computer programming and software design, code refactoring is the process of restructuring existing computer code – changing the factoring – without changing its external behavior. Refactoring is intended to improve the design, structure, and/or implementation of the software, while preserving its functionality.

The term was coined by Thoughtworks ( a software delivery company) Chief Scientist Martin Fowler, who in 2003 sought to understand the origins of the word and then became the prominent voice on it, eventually culminating in the book ‘Refactoring’ which was released in 2018.

The key point I want to make here is that there is scope here to identify and implement a disciplined technique for restructuring an existing body of service delivery, altering its internal structure without changing its external behavior. Improving existing laws without striking them down in their entirety (unless that approach is evidently needed).

A refactoring of society as it were, and a process that might want to be adopted by the social sector in the first instance as a way to improve grantmaking and service delivery, be more risk tolerant and not beholden to ‘well that’s the way we have always done it’ and ‘if it’s not broken why fix it?’ The latter of course being the most pessimistic thing one can say. 

Pessimists would also say that in principle, all regulations for which the expected social costs exceed their expected social benefits should be eliminated, but in practice, this economic viewpoint refuses to seek the context and nuance of our society. Pro-growth approaches are not necessarily nation building processes in this instance.

From a non-profit stand point It would be great if your governance committees looked at the refactoring principle as a mechanism for internal improvements, reviewing programs and internal policies periodically to see if they are indeed hitting their goals and broader organizational missions. Making recommendations for change could be moved more frequently in board and executive meetings to ensure seamless and proactive improvements to the vitality and effectiveness of the organization (and obviously be decisions that are evidence based). 

The annual board retreat just doesn’t cut it. Reacting to an incident that exposes your outdated policies and leaves you liable certainly doesn’t cut it. And if you are happy for your board to meet once a month and just have them perform bureaucratic theatre, then you might want to consider cuts of a different nature.

These changes shouldn’t be restricted to just policies and regulations either. Program delivery, staffing structure and budget lines (from a cost-benefit perspective) should not be taken off the table either. Looking at these items however needs to come with the caveat that those trying to ‘refactor’ the organization are there to identify items for review through informed recommendation, not micromanage the day to day operations of the organization.

Fowler says it best, “When a software system is successful, there is always a need to keep enhancing it, to fix problems and add new features.”

With this mindset a refactoring approach to nonprofit governance might also see recommendations of tech and automation enhancements that will serve the ‘back of the house’ all while freeing up time to do the most important work – serving your community.

And yes, this is something that might serve our legislative and executive branches well too, but that’s a rabbit hole I’m advising myself not to go down, but happy to discuss if you have any questions!

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