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Joel Glaser: Ampers, and importance of policy governance

By January 12, 2015August 12th, 2019Organizational Capacity

When you search the Ampers website you’re not going to find the long string of words that originally made up the acronym. What you’re going to find is this:

“Ampers is an association of 17 independent community radio stations in Minnesota.  Each station is locally managed and programmed by and for the local communities they serve.  Ampers is the largest statewide association of community radio stations in the United States. The stations primarily serve underserved populations including greater Minnesota, diverse communities, and students. From Grand Marais, and Thief River Falls, to Mankato and Winona, and just about everywhere in between, we’ve got Minnesota covered. Our combined audience is about 250,000 devoted listeners.”

 The message that is loud and clear when you visit Ampers online is that it means diverse radio for Minnesota’s communities. The emphasis on content is refreshing.

NFCB CEO Sally Kane spoke to Ampers Chief Executive Officer, Joel Glaser, about how such a big picture, unified approach to community media service in Minnesota evolved into the creative and revenue-generating locomotive that it has become. Joel credits most of the success to a change in the business model shifting from strictly underwriting to developing educational programs that generate revenue.  But, he says there was another key ingredient for success … policy governance.

Sally: What is Policy Governance?

Joel: “Policy governance very clearly defines the role of the board and the role of the staff.  In many organizations those roles aren’t clearly defined.  And, when that’s the case, you can have a staff that has way too much power, or you can have a board that is getting way too involved in day-to-day business.  Either situation is problematic and can have an extremely negative impact on the business.

In policy governance, the board establishes ends and constraints policies that the staff and board must follow.  The ends policies establish the goals for the organization.  The constraints policies establish what the staff CAN’T do.

Notice the policies don’t say what the staff CAN DO.  That’s because the staff can do whatever it needs to do to reach the goals defined in the ends policies, as long as their actions aren’t restricted by a constraints policy.

An example in our company:
Ends policy (goal): Obtain statewide and regional underwriting or other sponsorships on behalf of its members.

Constraints policy (limit): Staff cannot make an UNBUDGETED purchase over $2,000 without board approval. So, if it’s budgeted, that’s approved.  If it’s unbudgeted, the staff has some wiggle room but if it’s more than $2,000 we need to get board approval.

The bottom line, it has made our organization far more efficient.”

Sally: Why did you commit to policy governance at Ampers?

Joel: First off, I didn’t, the board did.  In fact, initially I was quite skeptical.  I looked at all the proposed policies and was worried that the board which had been micro-managing me was going to be doing so even more.  But it ended up being just the opposite.  And, it has worked out great. Policy governance is truly middle ground.

Sally: In what ways does governance style impact the culture of an organization?

Joel: “There are so many ways I couldn’t mention them all.  It can definitely have an impact on the morale of the staff and the members of the board.  Obviously it’s going to impact productivity which then impacts revenue and the overall effectiveness and success of the organization. Policy governance clearly establishes the roles of the board and the staff to keep both in check.”

Sally: What are the advantages of Policy Governance for CEO’s?  Boards?

Joel: “I know I sound like a broken record, but, it’s all about efficiency.  Instead of wasting time checking with the board, I know what I can and can’t do and can use that time to generate revenue.  If implemented properly, the board meetings are far more efficient.  Everyone involved wastes less time.

The purpose of a board is to provide big picture direction, goals, and missions.  The purpose of the staff is to make all of that happen.  The board should not be involved in day-to-day operations.  And, policy governance makes that clear.”

Sally: Every way of governing has its pitfalls…..what are they with policy governance in your opinion?

Joel: “The full board and the top executive have to be completely on board or it’s going to fail.  There’s a LOT of work to transition to policy governance.  You may need a consultant or at least be able to consult with an organization that has made the transition.  I truly don’t think you can do it on your own.  We were lucky, one of our board members had made the transition at their station.

You can get bogged down in the minutia.  For a while at each meeting we would read at least two sections of the policies out loud and the board had to agree that they still made sense and didn’t have to be amended.  I would go through each policy and tell the board if I am meeting or exceeding expectation, and, if not, why and what I’m going to do about it. After doing this for a while we’ve realized that while policy governance has helped us to be more efficient as an organization, our meetings could be even more efficient.  So, we are switching to more written reports that the board can approved through a consent agenda.

An over controlling board can use policy governance to become even more controlling.  And, you have to have a strong top executive who you can trust.  In many cases (I know it was the case for Ampers), a board becomes overly controlling because they were hands off and the organization went down the wrong path.  To compensate, the board then wants to be involved in every decision.  And, you’re in a viscous circle.  Implemented correctly, policy governance can stop that viscous circle.  Ampers is a perfect example.”

Sally: Why do you think stations can benefit from policy governance tenets?

Joel: “Because I’ve seen first-hand how much more efficient an organization can be when you have clearly defined roles for the staff and board.  And, I’ve seen how badly things can go when you have a top executive who has too much control or a board that is far too involved in day-to-day business.

Policy governance isn’t a magic bullet.  It takes a lot of work.  There has to be synergy and trust between the board and the top executive.  But, it can help an organization to become more efficient.  And, if you don’t use every aspect of it, you need to at least embrace the fact that there needs to be clearly defined roles and the board needs to focus on the big picture and allow the staff to handle the day-to-day issues.”

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