Corporate governance is often analyzed around major theoretical frameworks. The most common are agency theories, stewardship theories, resource-dependence theories, and stakeholder theories.
Agency theories arise from the distinction between the owners (shareholders) of a company or an organization designated as "the principals" and the executives hired to manage the organization called "the agent." Agency theory argues that the goal of the agent is different from that of the principals, and they are conflicting (Johnson, Daily, & Ellstrand, 1996). The assumption is that the principals suffer an agency loss, which is a lesser return on investment because they do not directly manage the company. Part of the return that they could have had if they were managing the company directly goes to the agent. Consequently, agency theories suggest financial rewards that can help incentivize executives to maximize the profit of owners (Eisenhardt, 1989). Further, a board developed from the perspective of the agency theory tends to exercise strict control, supervision, and monitoring of the performance of the agent in order to protect the interests of the principals (Hillman & Dalziel, 2003). In other words, the board is actively involved in most of the managerial decisionmaking processes, and is accountable to the shareholders. A nonprofit board that operates through the lens of agency theories will show a hands-on management approach on behalf of the stakeholders.
Stewardship theories argue that the managers or executives of a company are stewards of the owners, and both groups share common goals (Davis, Schoorman, & Donaldson, 1997). Therefore, the board should not be too controlling, as agency theories would suggest. The board should play a supportive role by empowering executives and, in turn, increase the potential for higher performance (Hendry, 2002; Shen, 2003). Stewardship theories argue for relationships between board and executives that involve training, mentoring, and shared decision making (Shen, 2003; Sundaramurthy & Lewis, 2003).
Resource-dependence theories argue that a board exists as a provider of resources to executives in order to help them achieve organizational goals (Hillman, Cannella, & Paetzold, 2000; Hillman & Daziel, 2003). Resource-dependence theories recommend interventions by the board while advocating for strong financial, human, and intangible supports to the executives. For example, board members who are professionals can use their expertise to train and mentor executives in a way that improves organizational performance. Board members can also tap into their networks of support to attract resources to the organization. Resource-dependence theories recommend that most of the decisions be made by executives with some approval of the board.
Stakeholder theories are based on the assumption that shareholders are not the only group with a stake in a company or a corporation. Stakeholder theories argue that clients or customers, suppliers, and the surrounding communities also have a stake in a corporation. They can be affected by the success or failure of a company. Therefore, managers have special obligations to ensure that all stakeholders (not just the shareholders) receive a fair return from their stake in the company (Donaldson & Preston, 1995). Stakeholder theories advocate for some form of corporate social responsibility, which is a duty to operate in ethical ways, even if that means a reduction of long-term profit for a company (Jones, Freeman, & Wicks, 2002). In that context, the board has a responsibility to be the guardian of the interests of all stakeholders by ensuring that corporate or organizational practices take into account the principles of sustainability for surrounding communities.