For almost 30 years, I’ve been part of a sector-wide conversation about the lack of diversity on nonprofit boards and the need to do better. In retrospect, I realize that our initial arguments were grounded primarily in a belief in the importance of representation. We also frequently cited research that demonstrated that diverse groups made better decisions, and argued that as the population was becoming more diverse boards needed to follow suit or risk missing out on large groups of potential board members. Much to the vexation of everyone involved, our admonitions seemed to have little impact on the realities of board composition.
Frustrated by the lack of change, in 2018 I wrote in the Chronicle of Philanthropy that we needed to move beyond those arguments (since they didn’t seem to be working) to focus more on all the talent and perspectives that were being forfeited because of our business-as-usual approach to board recruitment and to think about lack of board diversity as a symptom of much larger systemic and structural injustices that need to be remedied.
While I stand by those arguments, at the time I hadn’t really focused on boards as repositories and instruments of power. Nor had I taken into consideration the top-down, “we know what’s best,” “we’re just trying to help you” ethos that pervades much of the social sector.
White leaders and predominantly white leadership groups exercise power all the time — making decisions about how money will be spent and distributed, where programs will be offered, what the policies will be for participation — the list goes on and on.
These decisions often have the greatest impact on people and communities of color and others who have been historically marginalized by systemic racism and structural bias. And too often, those same people and communities are not consulted about either the initial decisions or the resulting outcomes.
I might not have come to this realization as quickly if I hadn’t begun working as a consultant with Fund for Shared Insight in 2017. Fund for Shared Insight is a national funder collaborative supported by some of the largest and best-known private foundations in the United States with a goal of promoting high-quality listening and feedback as a strategy to improve philanthropy and nonprofit service delivery.
Shared Insight’s signature initiative is Listen4Good, a capacity-building program that helps direct-service organizations design and implement a simple feedback survey, based on the Net Promoter System, with the people they serve. To date, Listen4Good has helped more than 550 organizations across the country implement high-quality feedback loops. More than 100 funders have nominated and underwritten costs for their grantees to participate.
What these organizations have learned from their clients, and how they’ve changed as a result, has been remarkable. Food banks realized that they weren’t offering staples that reflected the dietary preferences of clients. An employment program heard that its arbitrary 7 a.m. starting time for training sessions was creating hardships for parents with young children and complicated transportation logistics. An arts program for young people realized that participants in its grant-funded programs, predominantly students of color, didn’t experience the same sense of inclusion as its fee-paying clients.
In many cases, this feedback work has also had a profound impact on organizational culture. Once staff sees the enormous value of the insights generated from these surveys, they want to do more. Many have established advisory groups, peer exchanges, and other ways for clients to feel more connected to the organization and each other and to be more involved and have more power over decision-making processes.
And for some, part of their feedback journey is the realization that client perspectives would be equally valuable in the boardroom. As an example, the Center for Employment Opportunities (CEO), a national organization that provides jobs and support for people coming home from incarceration, launched its feedback work with support from Fund for Shared Insight before Listen4Good was created. As they share in this recent video, CEO now has two justice-involved board members on its national board and has launched local participant advocacy councils to promote civic engagement and give program participants a larger voice in shaping its advocacy and policy work.
Representation certainly matters, and so does feedback, but unless organizations approach both with an equity mindset, they won’t adequately address longstanding inequities or correct power imbalances. One of the most important steps in the Listen4Good approach to feedback is closing the loop — going back to those who participated in the surveys and telling them what the organization heard and what will be done in response. That step, which is where participating organizations experience the most challenges, is essential for building accountability and trust and shifting power.
In much the same way, simply curating more diverse boards, without attention to inclusion, equity, and power won’t lead to the kind of change our sector needs. That’s why the new framework laid out in Anne Wallestad’s recent Stanford Social Innovation Review article, “The Four Principles of Purpose-Driven Board Leadership,” is so critical, and reflects such a welcome and much-needed shift.
For those who haven’t read Anne’s piece (please read it!), the four principles are 1) purpose before organization, 2) respect for ecosystem, 3) equity mindset, and 4) authorized voice and power. Each of the principles is worth a post of its own, but equity mindset and authorized voice and power are especially relevant when thinking about board composition.
Approaching their work with an equity mindset requires boards to consider how their decisions are perpetuating or dismantling systems and structures that produce inequity. And the principle of authorized voice and power challenges boards to reconsider whether their deliberations are centered around the voices and lived expertise of the people and communities most impacted by their decisions.
Within the framework of purpose-driven board leadership, having a diverse board is not about optics or even inclusion. Representation matters, of course. And so does inclusion. But ultimately the conversation boards should be having is about purpose and power and what board composition is needed to work in genuine partnership with the people and communities they exist to serve.
My work with Fund for Shared Insight and Listen4Good has given me a glimpse of how organizations can be transformed when they listen with humility, respect, and willingness to change. As stewards of their organizations’ purpose, this is what boards are now being called to do.
Rick Moyers worked at BoardSource from 1992-1999, has served on the BoardSource board since 2012, and was chair from 2016-2018. He is a consultant to Fund for Shared Insight.