The Life Cycle of a Functional CSO Board

The Life Cycle of a Functional CSO Board

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A key driver of operational resilience and sustainability is the capability of civil society organisations (CSOs) to establish and cultivate effective boards. Board governance is an important ingredient to securing the evolution, scale and impact of a CSO. A colleague and I recently had an engaging conversation about the various stages of board development and the potential pathways to diagnose the health of a CSO board. This conversation centred on the patterns of evolution of CSO boards and whether there was a sequential transition from one phase to another. This conversation led to the development of this blog piece, which focuses on the life cycle of CSO boards within the African context based on our engagement and thought leadership in the sector.

Let’s go back to the Basics! What is  Board?

A Board is the policy-making body of an organisation and is found at the top of the organisational structure. It usually consists of elected and or co-opted individuals. In most CSOs, members of the Board are not salaried but perform voluntary service. In some cases, they are given allowances to meet certain logistical costs.

Every CSO should operate a functional Board, which exercises leadership, enterprise, integrity and judgment in directing the organisation to achieve impact and to act in the best interests of the organisation’s values and constituencies.

Most literature on organisational governance recognises the four basic duties of a Board to be loyalty, care and skill, knowledge, and attention. Board functions include: making decisions on policies and strategies of the organisation, representing the organisation, accountability for the organisation, overseeing the organisation’s work, appointing the executive director and agreeing on standards, resource mobilisation, conflict and tension management and being the custodian of the organisation.

Globally, there are three different and quite distinct types of CSO boards that develop as these organisations grow and change. They can be characterised as (1) The Founding Board, (2) The Governing Board, and (3) The Resourcing Board. Often the trend has been that CSO boards evolve from founding to resourcing boards but this evolution does not happen in all cases.

The Founding Board

Some start-up CSOs or organisations at their nascent stages operate founding boards. This means that the organisation is the board. There is no distinction between governance and management. This situation is quite understandable taking into cognisance the resource challenges associated with starting a CSO and in some instances the lack of organisational governance experience and skills.

Usually, members of such boards are the promoters/founders of the organisation. The board is composed of individuals with close ties to the mission of the CSO. Therefore, there is a strong sense of ownership and power is shared.  Consensus leadership is practised and there is a reluctance to release the power to first staff members. The board processes and procedures are largely informal based on collective decision-making and sometimes there is “rubber-stamping”. The members are extremely passionate about the mission and do not prioritise policy and administration.

A key challenge founding boards face is their penchant for not trusting and sharing power with the first staff members. In some cases, such frictions lead to some founding members choosing to leave or, staff may suffer the consequence and be treated poorly or, in worst cases, be fired.

It is recommended that such boards shift to a more business-inclined operation model. This means that the board and staff must redefine their roles. The board must begin to shift to a policy-making role while staff members focus on day-to-day management. The organisation must be also encouraged to open to new people, define clear job descriptions and invest in developing systems and structures for itself.

The Governing Board

This is the next stage of the evolution of most CSO Boards. CSOs that have been operating for about four to ten years usually have governing boards.  This is characterised by a clear distinction between governance responsibilities and management roles. Therefore, there is a balance of power between the staff and the board.  There is a tangible assumption of responsibility for the health and operational efficiency and effectiveness of the organisation.

To support this growth, there is the presence of formalised decision-making processes and an increased reliance on staff recommendations. The required focus is laid on policy, planning, and oversight responsibilities. There is also a significant investment in building management systems and structures.

Governing boards begin to embrace fundraising responsibilities. Board members are also more open to creating committees and are happy to delegate more work to these committees. An interesting development is the pursuit of a functional balance between board members’ passion for the mission and the focus on building internal capacity. Board recruitment is also more strategic to ensure that the right configurations of members are selected based on a wide array of skills including management, finance and resource mobilisation, and subject matter proficiency, legal acumen, among others.

A key frustration that organisations with governing boards experience is the difficulty of transitioning from an informal board to a more dynamic and formal structure. The rate of change of such boards into formal and “professionalised” entities can be rather slow.

It is recommended that when such boards are able to support their organisations to have strong and robust governance systems and structures, they should deliberately pursue a resource mobilisation/ fundraising agenda.

The Resourcing Board

The transition from governing to a resourcing board often leads to a struggle between the board and staff as they adjust to their new roles driven by a heavy focus on institutional resource mobilisation. Organisations at this stage focus on recruiting a larger board that has the capacity to attract and access a significant number of strategic funders, donors, and influential partners. Therefore, the organisation focuses on recruiting board members of high visibility with “resourcing” connections. CSOs that have been operating for about 10 to 30 years usually operate resourcing boards. Serving on such boards is considered prestigious.

Planning and budgeting are done by staff and approved by the Board.  There is a significant investment in operational planning and evaluation and a strong commitment to resource mobilisation. On such boards, a designated committee often functions as a governing board. Therefore, board oversight responsibilities are often delegated to committees.

A key success factor of a resourcing board would be its ability to delegate governance of the institution to a designated board committee to facilitate the transition into an institutional resource mobilisation board.


The stages of board development discussed in this blog piece often occur within the life cycle of CSOs but not in all instances. In certain situations, they may be exceptions. Some founding boards already have the capacity to raise funds and may experience a different growth trajectory by transitioning to a resourcing board without assuming all the attributes of a governing board.

In addition, it is not a forgone conclusion that boards of all CSOs need to experience the resourcing stage. Some sector practitioners argue that the progression to resourcing boards should not be perceived as inevitable. In Africa, this perception of inevitability is not supported by public interest, cause-oriented organisations that resist the idea of becoming resource-driven institutions.  These organisations often equate the resourcing stage with unhealthy bureaucracy, a focus on hierarchy and a growing culture of unresponsive and inflexible practices.

It is within this context, now more than ever, that leaders of CSOs in Africa need to be challenged to understand the role and responsibilities of their boards and the changes that need to be made as their organisation grows.


1 Comment

  1. EllenMn

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Fiifi is a Ghanaian and currently serves as Communications and Information Officer at the West Africa Civil Society Institute. He joined the Institute in December 2020.


Nancy is a Ghanaian and currently serves as Programme Officer in the Knowledge Management unit at the West Africa Civil Society Institute. She joined the Institute in January 2021.


Agnes is a Ghanaian and currently serves as Head of the Administration unit in the West Africa Civil Society Institute (WACSI). She joined the Institute in October 2021.


Doris holds a Bachelor of Arts in Social sciences (Economics and Sociology) from the University of Cape Coast. She is passionate about impacting young lives hence co-founded Impart Foundation. A non-profit organization which seeks to empower young lives through education, technology and entrepreneurship.


Prince Akowuah is a Ghanaian and currently the Programme Assistant in the Translation Unit at the West Africa Civil Society Institute (WACSI). She joined the Institute in 2020.


Maxwell Apenteng is a Ghanaian and joined WACSI in September 2010. He provides gardening and janitorial services at the Institute.


George Adu-Mintah is a Ghanaian and currently the Protocol Assistant/Driver at the West Africa Civil Society (WACSI). He joined the Institute in October 2006.


Ibrahim Kwaku Gbadago is a Ghanaian. He joined the Institute in 2008 and provides janitorial services and assisting the institute's errands. Before joining the Institute, he worked at the Palestinian embassy in Accra, Ghana.


Ruth Yakana is from Cameroon and currently the Receptionist at the West Africa Civil Society Institute (WACSI). She joined the Institute in 2020.


Bethel is a Ghanaian. He provides technical and IT related support to the Institute. He joined the Institute in October 2006.


Whitnay Segnonna holds a Bachelor’s Degree in International Management from the University of Benin. With 2 years of experience, she has a strong knowledge of organizational and project management. Combined with her bilingualism, she is very passionate about her work. She joined WACSI as Project Assistant on Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF) for the Capacity Development Unit.


Stella Yawa Wowoui holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Translation Studies. She has a perfect grasp of both French and English, as well as an intermediate level in Spanish. She is currently working as a Project Assistant on the Techsoup Project.


Kwame is an experienced IT Consultant/Software Developer. He is skilled in Web Applications Development, Digital Security, Database Management, Digital Marketing and Brand Management. He holds a Bachelor's Degree in Information Technology and is a Microsoft Programme Alumni. He is currently serving as a Marketing and IT Officer on the Techsoup Project.


Grace Akpene Ziggah is a Togolese and currently the Logistics Officer and also assists in administration duties at the West Africa Civil Society Institute (WACSI). She joined the Institute in June 2009.


Lilian Dafeamekpor is a Ghanaian and currently the Assistant to the Executive Director at the West Africa Civil Society Institute (WACSI). She joined the Institute in 2020.


John P. Frinjuah has expertise and interests in civil society, international development, democracy and governance, conflict, crisis, and security. He has extensive experience working with civil society and international development organizations where he supported and managed research, programmes, and provided technical assistance on a variety of themes around public policy, governance, and development. He is an alumnus of the University of Ghana and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy - Tufts University in the United States, with a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and Master of Arts in Law and Diplomacy from two institutions respectively. John speaks English, French and several Ghanaian and regional West Africa languages.


Gervin has extensive international development experience, including 5 years of policy advocacy and capacity building of grass root organisations. He has implemented over the years a combination of agriculture value chain, livelihood, food security and governance and rights programmes.
Prior to joining WACSI, Gervin worked on two USAID projects focusing on agriculture value chain development and governance in northern Ghana
Gervin holds a master’s degree in development & Governance from the University of Duisburg-Essen, Germany as well as a Masters in Global Studies from the Universities of Vienna (Austria), Leipzig (Germany) and California (Santa Barbara), USA. He is passionate social justice and inclusion.


Leandre Banon, Beninese, joined WACSI in September 2014 as Capacity Development Programme Assistant. Since then, he has worked in various units within the Institute to support operational and institutional capacity strengthening programmes for civil society in the region. Currently serving as Capacity Development Programme Officer at WACSI, his main responsibilities involve designing, planning, implementing and monitoring capacity development programmes for civil society constituents and grouping across the West Africa. Leandre is a certified Change the Game Academy Programme Trainer. His background lies in the areas of economics and development planning.


Samuel Appiah is a Ghanaian and currently the Programme Officer in the Finance and Administrative Unit at the West Africa Civil Society Institute (WACSI). He joined the Institute in May, 2016.


Jimm Chick Fomunjong, Cameroonian, joined WACSI in May 2018 as the Head of the Knowledge Management and Communication Units of the Institute. He has over ten years’ experience as a journalist and a development communications expert. He has a vast experience in supporting African organisations to strengthen their internal and external communications, building and sustaining relationships with the media and, leveraging on the power of social media to promote their mission. He is also excellent at supporting organisations to set up and operationalise functional communications and knowledge management systems. He has a deep passion and expertise in supporting Africans and African civil society organisations to document their praxis, share and learn from experiences documented from the African civil society sector.


Franck Sombo is a development practitioner with the drive to lead self and others to influence productivity and efficiency. His work involves supporting organisations to develop strategic plans, design monitoring and evaluation systems, develop and use relevant performance measurement tools to track progress, assess organizational growth and institutionalise learning. Franck has eight years of experience working with WACSI where he currently serves as the Head, Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning. His academic qualifications include Masters in Organisations’ and Projects’ Management, and in Business Sciences and a High National Diploma in Finance and Accounting.

Franck is a Fellow of the International Program for Development Evaluation Training (IPDET) and a graduate of the Graduate Training Institute (GTI) - Ghana with specialization in Strategic Management and Corporate Leadership. He has a rich experience in Project Management, Capacity Development, Strategic planning, Data Analytics, Monitoring and Evaluation, Training and Facilitation, Mentoring and Coaching among others.


Omolara is a development practitioner and advocacy strategist with over 15 years of progressive experience in development programming targeted at strengthening civil society in West Africa.

She joined WACSI in November 2009 as a Regional Advocacy Consultant and later became the first Policy Advocacy Officer of the Institute in 2010.

She was promoted to Head of the Policy Influencing and Advocacy (PIA) Unit in 2015. As the Head of the PIA unit, Omolara offers strategic direction to the Institutes’ ambitions to connect and convene groups of organised and organic civil society actors; and influence regional and global discourses on crosscutting policy issues including—civil society regulations, sustainable development goals, civic space and enabling environment, aid effectiveness, gender equality, and civil society accountability.

Previously, Omolara served as a Programmes Associate with the Women in Peace and Security Network-Africa (WIPSEN-Africa), where she worked with her team to design and implement pan-African programmes on—multidimensional peace support operations and gender mainstreaming in security sector reform in Ghana, Sierra Leone, and Liberia.

She also served as a Service Development Marshal at TVQ Consulting Group, a customer service firm focused on designing strategic customer relationship and business growth plans for private and public financial institutions in Nigeria.

Omolara is a social justice advocate, a network weaver, and a convener. She has a postgraduate degree in Peace and Conflict Studies; a degree in International Relations and History, from the University of Ibadan and Obafemi Awolowo University in Nigeria respectively.

She also holds executive certificates in Behavioral Science in Public Policy from Harvard University Executive Education in Cambridge and in Citizen Advocacy from the Coady International Institute, St Francis Xavier University in Canada.


Kwabena Kroduah is a Ghanaian and currently heads the Finance Unit at the West Africa Civil Society Institute (WACSI). He joined the Institute in January 2008.


Charles currently serves as the Head of the Capacity Development Unit at the West Africa Civil Society Institute (WACSI). Charles has over 10 years of experience working in international development and social justice issues in Africa. Charles has expertise in strengthening civil society and public agencies including the design and implementation of governance and leadership programmes, development of knowledge pieces and policy advice. Charles was the founding Board Chair of Innovation for Change (i4C)-Hub Afrique, as well as the founding member of the International Consortium on Closing Civic Space (iCon), an initiative of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington DC. Charles currently serves as the Member of the Governing Board (Coordination Collective) of Africans Rising. He is a Member of the Development Studies Association, United Kingdom. Charles is a 2017 Stanford University Fellow for Nonprofit Leaders and a certified Change the Game Resource Mobilisation Trainer.


Nana Afadzinu is a Ghanaian and currently serves as the Executive Director of the West Africa Civil Society Institute (WACSI). She joined the Institute in October 2010.