My mother-in-law’s Christmas cactus, Policy Governance, and a meaty metaphor

Next to a pithy phrase, a meaty metaphor is my favorite rhetorical device. It’s possible to say a lot with a few words. Case in point: my mother-in-law’s Christmas cactus as a stand-in for Policy Governance.

“Say what?” you ask. “Stick with me,” I answer.

The Christmas cactus at the heart of the metaphor

Following the death of my mother-in-law, I accepted responsibility for an almost 100-year old Christmas cactus that she had lovingly tended for more than three decades. I’m not a particular fan of the genus Schlumbergera, but this one meant a lot to her, and she meant a lot to me. So when no one else claimed the gnarly old thing, I took it.

No dumpster for the family cactus. Not on my watch

The ancient plant is alive and well thanks to the efforts of three generations of Basinger women — no small thing in today’s throw-away culture. The Christmas cactus came to my mother-in-law upon the death of an aunt who, in the mid-1930s, had inherited the plant from her mother, my husband’s great-grandmother.

Now it’s mine to nurture until the day it passes to a 5th generation caretaker. Which has me on a quest to learn all I can about the care and feeding of a Christmas cactus.

A plant by any other name isn’t a Christmas cactus.

And that brings me back to the idea of  metaphor and my role as chair of a nonprofit board that several years ago went the way of Policy Governance (aka the Carver Model).

Truth be told, I’ve not been a fan of Policy Governance. My work with boards of faith-based nonprofits has brought me into contact with enough misuses of the model to make me a skeptic. However, Policy Governance meant a lot to the board chairs who proceeded me – wise women who I like and respect. So I’ve taken it on.

No dumpster for the organization’s governance model. Not on my watch.

In fact, I’m determined to see this thing thrive – maybe even bloom. And that has me on a quest to learn all I can about Policy Governance, including:

  • reading and rereading the Carver library;
  • subscribing to Policy Governance-focused blogs;
  • talking with consultants;  and
  • hunting for “best of” examples of Policy Governance in action.

But governance, like life, goes on. So even as I’m learning, I’m also acting. This includes:

  •  reviewing my board’s policy handbook and identifying gaps in the coverage;
  • adding policy development and monitoring to the board’s work plan for the year; and
  • putting an introduction to Policy Governance at the center of new member orientation.

In the midst of it all, I’m looking for a likely next generation caretaker who I can start prepping now in anticipation of my end of term as board chair.

I’ve not yet experienced a “road to Damascus” level conversion to Christmas cacti or Policy Governance. But I’m warming to both. And who knows, I may even get them to bloom under my watch.


  1. Dear Rebekah,

    Thank you for this poignant story, using the metaphor of your mother-in-laws Christmas cactus that you refused to throw away. I am grateful for your even greater commitment to Policy Goverance (PG). Like you, I have seen this powerful gift from Dr. John Carver misused and poorly used.. Like your cactus, when tended to expertly, and with the right Ends as the inspiration, it can transform an organization and its service to the community.

    Bill Harper

    William P. Harper
    CEO, International Policy Goverance Association

    P.S. I noticed in your bio that you once worked for the United Brethren in Christ. My wife’s many-great grandfather, Rev. Martin Kreider, was a founding member, I believe.

    • Hello Bill, I’m impressed that you came across Generous Matters and the post about the Christmas cactus and Policy Governance. I am trying hard to make the model work better for the board that I chair — beginning with a complete overhaul of the very out-of-date policies. Fortunately, two others are the board have volunteered to help with this massive undertaking. Your message provides additional encouragement.

      In addition to my board service, my husband — the provost at a small college here in Pennsylvania — and I are imagining a research project that highlights colleges and universities that have successfully integrated Policy and shared governance.

      As for your wife’s ancestor, Kreider is definitely a familiar name among the various Brethren groups that trace their roots to south central Pennsylvania. It is indeed a small world.


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