The following is the plenary from the 2017 BoardSource Leadership Forum, as delivered by Anne Wallestad, BoardSource’s president and CEO.
It might sound silly, but my civic awakening happened in the fall of my 7th-grade year. I was getting comfortable in my new junior high environment and enjoying the relative freedom and independence that came with it: Seven different classes each day, teachers who expected us to be independent and accountable, and a social environment that had leapfrogged ahead from the elementary school playground.
I was feeling very grown up.
It was in that context, that newfound sense of independence and agency, that it happened. A group of parents from my church took issue with the curriculum in one of my classes. And they launched a fight with the school board to have it changed.
When I learned about their campaign, I was totally confused. First, because I wasn’t used to my church world and my school world overlapping. I went to church a couple of towns away from my school, and there was only one other kid from our church who attended junior high in my district. Second, and much more importantly, I couldn’t imagine what could have possibly been upsetting about this course. I knew that some school boards in my state were battling over the teaching of sex ed and evolution, but this was a life skills course that seemed completely uncontroversial—at least to me.
I asked my mom if she knew what this was all about. She said that this kid from my church and school district had told his mom about the class, and that she didn’t like that it was talking about equality and the idea that girls and boys shouldn’t be expected to do or act in certain ways just because of their gender.
Now I was even more confused. Someone was upset about that? Someone thought that was wrong? My mom tried to explain. But the more she said, the more I realized that—at least on some level—she agreed with them.
I was heartbroken.
It was the first time that I remember truly disagreeing with my mom. It was my first clue that we might see the world a little bit differently. I desperately wanted her to be on my side, and I really didn’t like the way that it felt to know that she wasn’t.
I quickly shifted my focus to the school board. I wanted to go to the meeting and make a case for why this course mattered. I wanted to argue for the importance of creating the space for students to be able to talk about the ways that sexism could negatively impact us, boys and girls alike. And I wanted to stand up, and say that it shouldn’t be controversial to tell 13-year-old girls and boys that they owe it to themselves—and to each other—to view each other as equals.
I told my mother that I wanted to come with her to the school board meeting to speak. And I fully expected that she would allow me to do so. I was confident that she would say that—even though we might disagree—she was proud of me for my willingness to speak up for what I believed in. That she was happy that I was willing to be a part of the conversation, rather than simply sitting on the sidelines in frustrated disagreement.
I was wrong.
My mother flatly refused to bring me to the meeting. No debate. No reasoning. It was not going to happen. I was not going to have the opportunity to be a part of this conversation. This decision was going to be made without me, whether I liked it or not.
I can remember very clearly how it felt to sit home that night while she went to the meeting. Frustration. Anxiety. Powerlessness.
I’ve thought about that night a lot over the past year, as I’ve tried to make sense of what is happening around us. It’s easy to feel a sense of powerlessness, given the divisiveness that we are experiencing as a society. A sense of anxiety, as fear and confusion surround so many aspects of our work and our communities. And a sense of frustration as our leaders in all levels of government struggle to identify a path forward.
But unlike my 7th-grade self, we are not powerless in this moment. As a sector, we have a tremendous opportunity to bring people together. To insist on civility and solutions-oriented thinking that helps us move beyond partisan politics. And to rally our communities around the shared sense of purpose that comes from a desire to make the world a better place—for all of us.
But, to do that effectively, we need to unlock the full leadership potential of our organizations, our boards, and our executives. And I have four specific recommendations about how to make that happen.
1. Start with Purpose
There is a reason that your organization exists. What is it?
I’m not talking about your mission statement or your strategic plan; they are a reflection of your current focus and efforts. I’m talking about—in the simplest terms—what is your organization’s reason for being? What problem, issue, or challenge do you exist to address?
For many organizations, purpose flows from the founding story:
In 1976, Habitat for Humanity started a program that paired those in need of adequate shelter with volunteers to work side by side to build decent, affordable houses. That remains their focus even today, and—over the past 40 years—Habitat for Humanity has helped shelter 9.8 million people.
For others, purpose has shifted since the original founding, but is no less powerful in serving as a guide for the organization’s reason for being. Take, for example, the March of Dimes. Originally founded to address the challenge of childhood polio, the March of Dimes broadened its focus to maternal and infant health once the scourge of polio was largely eradicated. Or the YWCA, whose original purpose was to serve as an association of Christian women supporting programming and temporary housing for others, but in 1970—112 years after it was founded—the YWCA redefined its purpose to focus on eliminating racism and its negative impacts on women.
By defining your core purpose, you’re able to get very clear on what’s most important in terms of your work—what’s absolutely central in terms of what you seek to accomplish, as well as what’s not.
You might be surprised what a conversation about purpose can unlock in your boardroom. A couple of years after I joined BoardSource’s leadership team, I had the opportunity to be a part of our strategic planning process. As a part of that work, our board was grappling with our core purpose and—more specifically—the question of our ultimate reason for being. We had total clarity about what we did: Since we were founded in 1988, we had always been focused on strengthening nonprofit board leadership—a fact that remains true today, almost 30 years later. But in reflecting on our core purpose, we were forcing ourselves to think more deeply about why we did it.
What simple, basic truths were guiding our work? Did we exist to support individual board members and help them become more effective and make their board service more enjoyable? Was our reason for being to make nonprofits stronger institutions and corporate structures? Or did we define our purpose as something broader—a desire to make the world a better place, and the belief that strong nonprofit organizations are essential to making that happen?
It may sound like semantics, but—for us—it was a deeply philosophical question that went to the heart of why we do what we do. Our answer was clear and has become even more so in the years since. Our core purpose is to advance the public good. We believe that the social sector is a key player in making that happen. And we believe that organizations need strong and effective leadership at the board level to unleash their full potential to do so. That’s why we do the work that we do.
That decision has changed the way that we work as an organization, and it’s helped clarify what is most important for us to do. It’s also given us permission to stop doing some of the things that were less essential to that purpose, particularly those things that could be done just as effectively through partners and collaborators.
For us, defining our core purpose simultaneously focused us and freed us. It held us accountable to what was most important, and it relieved us from trying to be all things to all people.
Defining your core purpose, and doing so with the full engagement and participation of your board, unlocks new clarity, meaning, and forward momentum, and is a critical first step in unleashing the full leadership potential of your organization.
2. Define Your Values and Live into Them
Many a business ethics professor has told this cautionary tale about corporate values. They start by reciting these four words:
Communication. Respect. Integrity. Excellence.
“What’s wrong with them,” the professor asks. The students are quiet. What could possibly be wrong with these words, they wonder.
But it’s a trick question. There isn’t anything wrong with these words or values. The problem is that they were Enron’s corporate values just as they were collapsing under the weight of the largest corporate ethics scandal we’ve ever seen.
For values to mean something, they have to go beyond platitudes and hollow commitments. They should be deeply held principles that are central to who you are as an organization. They must guide the way that your organization makes decisions, does business, and operates in the world.
Values should not be generic statements with which no one could possibly disagree. Values are the things that define us. The things that guide the way that we show up and lead in the world. And the things that we’re willing to defend.
Over the past year, we’ve seen unprecedented levels of engagement from corporations and their CEOs, signaling clearly and compellingly what they stand for.
When the United States announced its intention to back out of the Paris Climate Accord, we saw leaders from Microsoft, Target, Facebook, and many others announce that they would continue to uphold the tenets and goals of the climate accord because it reflected their values.
When the federal government called for bans on travel from majority-Muslim countries, companies like Ford Motor Company and Netflix and many others declared vehement opposition, not just because it negatively impacted their businesses, but because it was antithetical to their corporate values. Commenting on this decision, Mark Fields, then-CEO of Ford, said defiantly, “I think we’re just going to be a company that lives by its values, and let the chips fall where they may.”
And when neo-Nazis marched in Charlottesville and revealed the painful reality that white supremacism is alive and well in our society, companies as diverse as Apple, Campbell’s Soup, and TIKI brand, felt compelled to take a public stand against racism in a way that would have been hard to imagine just a year ago.
As a sector that exists for the sole purpose of advancing the public good, it’s no surprise that social sector leaders are standing up as well. There are countless examples of nonprofit organizations and leaders pushing back against policies and decisions that would hurt the people and the missions that they serve.
This kind of values-driven leadership should not happen without deep thinking about organizational values at the board level.
Boards are the guardians of an organization’s reputation, its mission, and its promise to the community. And it’s essential that when executives are putting their organization’s leadership on the line, they are doing so in a way that is consistent with the organization’s values, not just their own personal ones.
The first CEO to resign from the American Manufacturing Council after the president’s response to the events in Charlottesville was Kenneth Frazier of Merck. Frazier, who happens to be one of just four black executives running a Fortune 500 company, made a clear statement about the rationale for his decision. He said:
America’s leaders must honor our fundamental values by clearly rejecting expressions of hatred, bigotry, and group supremacy, which run counter to the American ideal that all people are created equal.
Shortly after that statement was released, it was reported that Merck’s board of directors was standing behind Frazier in support. But an individual member of Merck’s board of directors was quoted as saying:
As you can imagine, as the only African American in that position, on that council, you can’t take yourself out of your own personal context. As a consequence, Ken had a very strong reaction to what he saw as a failure of leadership.
I was struck by how strong a signal it was that—for this individual board member—this was about Mr. Frazier, not Merck. It was about his personal beliefs and values, not the corporation’s. They were standing behind him, but they were not standing with him.
That’s better than nothing, but when it comes to the social sector’s leadership on issues of critical importance to the people and communities we serve, “better than nothing” is not good enough. We need the full weight of our organizations behind us. And that requires thoughtful deliberation about organizational values at the board level—and a shared commitment to act on them.
I’m reminded of a recent position taken by the American Medical Association. They publicly opposed the Graham-Cassidy legislation, which would have repealed and replaced the Affordable Care Act. Their rationale was very simple: They believe that the Hippocratic Oath, and its value of “First, do no harm,” prevented them from supporting legislation that would jeopardize health insurance coverage for millions of Americans.
Now, I understand that we might not all agree about the desired future of the Affordable Care Act, and it’s a topic on which principled people may disagree. That’s actually not my point. My point is that this type of leadership is only possible when boards and leaders have absolute clarity about their purpose and values, and are willing to live into them.
At BoardSource, we have been doing deep thinking about the role of equity in our work and the work of the social sector at large. We’ve challenged ourselves to articulate why it is that we believe so strongly in the importance of diversity, inclusion, and equity, both for ourselves and for the entirety of the nonprofit sector.
For us, it goes beyond the understanding that diverse and inclusive boards perform better, though certainly that is true. There’s tremendous evidence that boards and other teams that are diverse make better decisions, are more innovative, and—in the case of for-profit companies—have stronger bottom lines. A 2015 study by McKinsey & Company found that companies with more diverse boards and leadership teams outperform those with less diversity at the top. Companies that were in the top quartile for racial/ethnic diversity were 35 percent more likely to outperform the national industry median than their less diverse peers.
Within the social sector, however, limiting the discussion of board diversity to the deliberative or bottom-line benefits is simply too narrow a frame. Doing so ignores the unique role of the nonprofit sector in addressing critical challenges and inequities in our society.
Consider the impact of a board, in today’s environment, that doesn’t understand how race and racism are impacting the people that they serve. A board that is oblivious to the fear and pain that looms over entire communities when white supremacists march openly and without universal condemnation. A board that struggles to understand the significance of changed policies and protections for immigrants. A board that can dismiss to “politics as usual” realities that are—for those they serve—deeply painful and destructive.
Some of you may have read about a controversy that embroiled the Walker Art Center, a well-respected contemporary art museum in Minneapolis, Minnesota. With the board’s support, the museum had decided to exhibit a controversial piece in its world-renowned sculpture garden. The massive outdoor installation was designed to represent gallows, including the one that was used to hang 38 Native Americans at the end of the United States-Dakota war. It was the largest mass execution in US history, and a memory that is so painful that even today—more than 150 years later—some members of the Dakota community refuse to drive through Mankato, the small southern Minnesota city where the executions took place.
The reaction to the exhibit from leaders of the Dakota community was swift and critical. Cheyenne St. John, tribal historian for the Lower Sioux community northwest of Mankato, was quoted as saying, “These were acts of genocide, not something to be portrayed between a giant rooster and a cherry,” a reference to two of the sculpture garden’s most famous pieces.
The board and the art director were completely blindsided. They had decided to exhibit highly sensitive content in a vacuum—with no input or counsel from the Dakota community. And it had backfired in a very public and painful way. They set to work reconciling and rebuilding with the Dakota people, which started by agreeing to take the sculpture down. But, in many ways, the damage was done. And it’s a lesson about the importance of perspective.
Now, to be clear, it’s possible for insight and perspective to come in many ways, and it isn’t always through the members of the board. But it’s worth an organization thinking about which perspectives are most important to the organization based on the nature, location, and goals of the organization and to be thoughtful about what that should mean in terms of board composition. And as the Walker works to repair its relationship with the Dakota community, it’s not insignificant that one of the Dakota community’s requests is that they elect a Native American to the board.
To me, this story drives home what’s at stake when we’re talking about board diversity. Given the work that we do and the missions with which we’ve been entrusted by our communities, for us, as a social sector, a lack of diversity is a threat to our missions. A very real liability in terms of our ability to do our work in relevant and authentic ways.
And we know it. BoardSource’s biennial study, Leading with Intent, asked nonprofit executives about the importance of diversity to their organization. Here’s what they said:
Diversity—and specifically the diversity of the board—is important or very important to:
- understanding my organization’s external context from a broader perspective (89 percent)
- developing creative solutions to problems (85 percent)
- understanding the populations served by my organization (82 percent)
- strengthening our organization’s standing with the public (80 percent)
- planning effectively (77 percent)
We know that diversity matters. Unfortunately, that hasn’t changed the fact that our boards are not as diverse as we say we want them to be. Both executives and board chairs express dissatisfaction with their board’s diversity, with the highest levels of dissatisfaction in the area of racial and ethnic diversity. Sixty-five percent of executives and 41 percent of board chairs say that they are dissatisfied with the racial and ethnic diversity of their boards. And rightly so; Leading with Intent finds that 84 percent of all board members are white and a full 27 percent of boards have not a single person of color on the board.
Those statistics are troubling on their own, but we were especially disturbed to see that the data document real dissonance between board attitudes and actions—there’s a stark difference between what we say matters to us and what we actually do about it.
Nineteen percent of the executives said that they were both:
- Dissatisfied with their board’s racial and ethnic diversity AND
- Placing “low” or “no” priority on demographics in board recruitment
That means that one in five of the executives we surveyed self-identified that they have a problem with board diversity, and they are doing nothing to change it. The dissonance is so striking that one researcher asked me what we had done to structure the survey so as to elicit honest responses to these two questions, thinking that—surely—no one would be comfortable providing this combination of responses if they really thought about what that would say about their organization.
But the truth is, we don’t really know what this is saying about an organization, as it could be telling us a lot of different things. It could be about a disconnect between the values of the executive and the values of the board. It could be about a sense that it’s somehow wrong to consider demographics as a part of board recruitment out of fear of tokenism or even reverse racism. There could be a lot of reasons, but—whatever they are—they point to a real challenge for us as a sector.
This is not about shaming. It’s not about beating ourselves up about what we haven’t done. It’s about painting a very clear picture of what it will take to change. We need to stop saying that we value diversity, and then—when the rubber hits the road with board recruitment and other decision-making—prioritizing everything else above it. That means tackling head-on what we believe is most important when it comes to board leadership and debunking the false dichotomies that often come to the fore when we start talking about diversity and the role of the board. It’s not about choosing between a fundraising board and a diverse board. We don’t have to forfeit community connections to have access to decision-makers. And we don’t need to sacrifice perspective to have power.
These are false choices, and they are getting in our way. They are getting in our way in terms of defining the role of the board, and they are getting in our way as we seek to recruit new board candidates. Boards need all of these things. And no one amongst us should be reduced to just one of them. Indeed, it’s when we start attributing equal value to board leaders who bring different combinations of expertise, experience, and access that we actually can have it all.
Boards are designed for diversity. Diversity of thought. Diversity of perspective. Diversity of networks. Diversity of backgrounds.
The nonprofit boardroom can represent the absolute best of our society. Purpose-driven leaders of all walks of life coming together to serve a shared mission, sharing power around the boardroom table and within the community to ensure that the organization does right by its mission and the people that it serves.
That’s who we can and should be as a sector. That’s the vision of board leadership that BoardSource values. And that’s what’s possible if we clearly define our values and live into them.
Through Leading with Intent, we are able to see which board activities and characteristics are related to others. Not surprisingly, there’s a clear link between the boards that discussed and agreed that diversity and inclusion are core organizational values and those that prioritized demographics in board recruitment. And guess what? There’s also a connection between those organizations that prioritize demographics in recruitment and those that actually are more racially and ethnically diverse.
Values matter. And that’s where we all need to start. But the mistake that we cannot afford to make is to stop there. Our values must serve as a platform for shared commitment and action. Because without real action, our values simply measure the distance between who we are and who we aspire to be.
3. Cultivate Resilience through Flexibility
When I first joined BoardSource’s leadership team nine years ago, we had just completed a new strategic plan. It adopted some very lofty goals in terms of organizational growth to advance and sustain our work. Some of you may have done the math and realized that that was the fall of 2008, and—as was the case for many nonprofit organizations—our grand plans had to take a back seat to the very real impact of the Great Recession. We needed to retool and recalibrate for a new financial reality. And we, like many others, struggled to do that well or quickly enough.
The financial downturn, and our hesitance to shift and change in deep, meaningful ways, led to several tough years of financial performance, and—I think it’s fair to say—a bit of an identity crisis about who we were as an organization, who we needed to be to most effectively support and lead the sector, and how to build a more sustainable and resilient business model.
The board was asking itself tough questions that sparked important conversations. And when I took over as interim CEO at the beginning of 2013, there was no question we were ready for change. We were seeing success with some of the new programmatic innovations that we had recently adopted and were steadily increasing our reach, but we were heavily reliant on reserves for monthly operations and needed a new business model—and fast.
It was a scenario that I’m sure is familiar to many of you in the room. As the board evaluated the somewhat fragile state of affairs, we understood implicitly that now was not the time for rigidity. It was not the time to look back to the plans and tactics that we had laid out years before. We needed to get serious about how best to fulfill our promise to the nonprofit leaders and organizations that relied on us. This was bigger than any of us as individual leaders, and—in the most fundamental ways—it was bigger than BoardSource as an institution.
As you would expect, one of the things that we contemplated was whether or not BoardSource should consider merging with another organization. It was an option that we explored very seriously, and even went through an involved due diligence process with a potential partner. Ultimately, we did not go down that path for a number of reasons, but the experience was illuminating in terms of the potential for collaboration. And it changed the way that we think about our place in the sector, and the ways that we work in partnership with others.
For BoardSource, that was truly the beginning of a partnership orientation to our work. A commitment to exploring—with every new programmatic initiative or plan—how can we do this more effectively in partnership with others? No longer do we define our success by what we do ourselves, but—instead—we are focused on what we make possible, including those things that we don’t do, because we have built partnerships with others who are positioned to do it better, more efficiently, or with deeper expertise.
You can see evidence of that partnership orientation throughout our organization. The partnership that we’ve forged with leading organizations in nonprofit advocacy through the Stand for Your Mission campaign. Groups like the Alliance for Justice, the National Council of Nonprofits, United Philanthropy Forum, and the Campion Foundation here in Seattle. The work that we’re doing in collaboration with GuideStar, BBB Wise Giving, and the Association of Fundraising Professionals to change the way that boards evaluate fundraising effectiveness. And the new initiative that we launched earlier this year, The Power of Possibility.
The Power of Possibility
For those of you that aren’t familiar with The Power of Possibility, it’s in many ways a manifestation of the sense of optimism about the potential for deep, sustained collaboration that was instilled in us by BoardSource’s own experience. A partnership with experts in the field