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Exploring Community-Connected Boards

In this time of transformation in our sector, we’re seeing philanthropy continue to reimagine its roles and ways of working, and explore what it means to center diversity, equity and inclusion in our work. 

In this time of transformation in our sector, we’re seeing philanthropy continue to reimagine its roles and ways of working, and explore what it means to center diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in our work. 

We are highlighting how some in our CMF community of philanthropy are bringing that conversation to the board table. 

Most recently, the Kalamazoo Community Foundation (KZCF) announced that for the first time they are holding an open application process to fill two seats on their newly expanded board. KZCF shares that it is growing its Board of Trustees from nine to 11 members to intentionally include trustees “whose identities and communities are most directly impacted by injustices.”

The board expansion is driven by the community foundation’s new mission “to mobilize people, resources and expertise to advance racial, social and economic justice.”

“We chose an open application process because we want to reach community members whose lived experiences give them deep knowledge and expertise on Kalamazoo County’s issues and opportunities,” Carrie Pickett-Erway, president and CEO of KZCF said in a press release. “KZCF is looking for trustees who have the vision and commitment to advance justice in all forms and move our mission forward.”

According to the press release, “volunteer trustees are principally charged with providing guidance in the areas of grantmaking and community leadership. Candidates must be willing to center anti-racism and justice, engage in open and honest dialogue, prioritize trusting relationships and take personal action to carry the work forward.”

During CMF’s  49th Annual Conference, members discussed the need for more community-connected and diverse board leadership.

In the Leadership Series session, Anne Wallestad, president and CEO of BoardSource, led a conversation framed around purpose-driven board leadership, a mindset characterized by four fundamental principles that define the way that the board sees itself and its work. 

Wallestad first wrote about this mindset and the four principles in an article featured in the Stanford Social Innovation Review.

According to Wallestad, purpose-driven board leadership is characterized by four principles:

•    Purpose before organization: Prioritizing the organization's purpose, versus the organization itself.

•    Respect for ecosystem: Acknowledging that the organization's actions can positively or negatively impact its surrounding ecosystem and a commitment to being a respectful and responsible ecosystem player.

•    Equity mindset: Committing to advancing equitable outcomes and interrogating and avoiding the ways in which the organization's strategies and work may reinforce systemic inequities.

•    Authorized voice and power: Recognizing that organizational power and voice must be authorized by those impacted by the organization's work.

“Community voice and power on boards are essential. It is the mechanism for earning and maintaining the trust required to do the work of social sector organizations,” Wallestad writes in the article.

Purpose-driven board leadership moves away from traditional “mission-driven” leadership. 

According to Wallestad, and in reference to the principle of “authorized voice and power,” a traditional board asks: “What do we think is best?” – without any reflection on how who “we” are is impacting the board’s answer to that question. In contrast, a purpose-driven board asks itself deep questions about its composition and how that impacts its perspectives, including “Is our board populated in a way that ensures that our power is authorized by and inclusive of the community impacted by the work that we do? Are we doing all we can to listen to what our programmatic stakeholders tell us is most important.”

We are seeing an increasing number of foundations reexamining their policies and practices around board recruitment and board governance, as well as reflection on opportunities to engage more community voice at the committee level, particularly for family foundations whose board composition may be limited to family members.

Dr. Elishae Johnson, chairperson for Battle Creek Community Foundation Board of Trustees and Randy Maiers, president and CEO of Community Foundation of St. Clair County, joined Wallestad in conversation in the Annual Conference session.

According to Maiers, previously the foundation followed the model of board member recruitment that required candidates to have direct prior experience on one of their committees.

“However, over the last few years we’ve come to realize that what’s truly important for community-based philanthropy, is recruiting people who share our values, beliefs and actively demonstrate their belief in philanthropy and/or volunteerism on their own terms and in their own community,” Maiers shared with CMF. “Now, there is more than one pathway to serve on our board which makes us a more intentional and thoughtful organization.”

Jim Taylor, vice president of leadership initiatives, focuses on leading BoardSource’s efforts to position nonprofit boards for stronger leadership on DEI. Taylor shared more with CMF from the national landscape about how boards are thinking about diversifying their composition.

“Since the onset of the pandemic ─ and its disproportionate impact on communities of color ─ and the tragic murder of George Floyd, we’ve definitely heard from an increasing number of nonprofits stating that they ‘want to get off the sidelines’ regarding DEI,” Taylor said. 

According to Taylor, conversations about board composition and community representation are happening but there’s much more work that lies ahead in the sector. 

“The issue of community representation can be particularly challenging for boards; some boards have informed us that they want to include more voices from the community, but that these individuals are often ‘not a good fit’ for the board,” Taylor said.

According to Taylor, community members might not be a “good fit” for several reasons including that they may not have the personal wealth or networks that the board desires, may not have the skill sets the board is looking for and may not share similar perspectives as the majority of longstanding board members.

Taylor shared that he urges boards to move beyond their strong preferences to only add board members with whom they are “comfortable” with and to recognize that adding more community representation can ultimately help the board have more robust conversations.

“Ultimately, we at BoardSource are urging boards to ask themselves: ‘If our board composition is a reflection of whose trust we consider to be most important, which stakeholders are we prioritizing – and who are we leaving out?’” Taylor said.

BoardSource encourages boards to try different approaches to achieve greater board diversity. According to Taylor, boards can share board postings on job recruitment sites and include language in the postings that encourages candidates that would add to the board’s racial and ethnic diversity, to apply.

“We recommend that every board member ─ not only board members of color ─ challenge themselves to expand their own networks to include more diverse individuals,” Taylor said. “If every board member does this, the board will be able to create a pool of candidates that would enable the board to recruit strategically for more diversity not just for the next recruitment opportunity, but for board recruitment opportunities over time – which could also positively impact the board’s ability to build a more inclusive culture and, ultimately, to more clearly see the connection between equity and the board’s mission and work.”

Want more?

Read the full article The Four Principles of Purpose-Driven Board Leadership.

Learn more about BoardSource’s commitment to DEI.

If you registered for CMF’s 49th Annual Conference you can access the full recording of the Leadership Series – EQUITY: Purpose-Driven Board Leadership via the conference platform.