Governance issues in voluntary organisations with local-national structures
Robson, Paul; Cornforth, Chris (2010)

by Paul Robson, Age Concern and Chris Cornforth, Open University Business School

There are a variety of local-national (or peripheral-central) relationships and structures in use in voluntary organisations nationally and internationally. There are federations, confederations, networks, corporates and franchises (Oster, 1992; Young et al, 1996; Taylor and Lansley, 2000; Brown et al, 2007). The inter-relationships of the component parts of these structures have implications for the governance of both these groups of organisations as a whole and the individual components (Widmer and Houchin, 1999).

Achieving the proper governance of all the constituent parts of a federated charitable organisation can be more complex than in a single, unified organisation with one board of trustees. Each local autonomous charity will have a board of trustees with a duty to fulfil all the legally required functions including responsiveness to local stakeholders. However, local members of a federation also have a supra-governance structure, which will often make decisions on policy and practice that members are expected to comply with, such as various operating standards. This raises a series of interesting questions, for example: How do different levels of governance relate to each other and manage different interests? What is the impact on governance of having multiple stakeholders and accountabilities at each level? What do participants in these structures do to manage the complexity and inevitable tensions?

Sadly, research on the governance of these more complex organisations with group or federal structures has been relatively neglected (Cornforth, 2010). Interestingly though recent Charity Commission interest has resulted in contact with 60 charities with ‘group structures’ and drafting of new guidance to promote good governance.

This paper sets out an initial step to help begin fill this gap in research. It will report on a preliminary review of the relevant literature to identify key concepts and develop an agenda of issues and questions for future research. It will also identify the distinctive features of different local-national structures as a starting point for defining the parameters of future research.


Brown, L. D., Batliwala, S., Ebrahim, A. and Honan, J. (2007) ‘Governing International Advocacy NGOs and Networks: Architecture, Advocacy Performance and Accountability’, a paper presented at the ARNOVA Conference, 2008, Philadelphia, PA.

Cornforth, C. (2010) Challenges and Future Directions for Third Sector Governance Research, A paper to be presented at the 10th EURAM Conference, Rome, May, 2010.

Oster S. (1992) ‘Nonprofit organizations as franchise operations’ Nonprofit management and leadership, 2, 3.

Taylor M. and Lansley J. (2000) ‘Relating the central and the local, options for organizational structure’ Nonprofit management and leadership, 10, 4.

Widmer C. and Houchin S. (1999) ‘Governance of national federated organizations’ Aspen Institute.

Young D., Bania N. and Bailey D. (1996) ‘Structure and accountability, a study of national nonprofit associations’ Nonprofit management and leadership, 6, 4.

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