At any given moment, nonprofit boards are faced with juggling multiple opposing forces. Boards are excited to charge ahead with the organization's work but at the same time required to continually adapt to change, moved by urgency but hesitant about severely limited capacity, ambitious yet stymied by limited resources. It may feel as if there is never a clear path to follow. No matter how well-resourced or prominent the organization is, it is always overshadowed by the scale and complexity of the cause it strives to address.
What if it were possible to achieve a greater impact without more capacity, or even more resources?
Purpose-Driven Leadership and Network Leadership
Former BoardSource CEO Anne Wallestad describes a pathway to just this kind of result in The Four Principles of Purpose-Driven Board Leadership (Stanford Social Innovation Review, March 10, 2021). Here, nonprofit board members encounter a distinct alternative to the competition- and scarcity-driven mindset that so often permeates nonprofit organizations and can diminish the mission “spark” that boards and staff hunger for.
The principles of purpose-driven board leadership encourage board members to focus more on their purpose and less on their organizations; to prioritize strong connection to and regard for their broader ecosystem, and to intentionally and consistently center the communities their organizations seek to serve. Boards are asked to embrace something unfamiliar—maybe even a little bit radical—yet remarkably sensible and fully authentic. It’s perhaps not surprising that this approach resonates strongly with nonprofits undertaking courageous introspective leadership work in a context where everything’s changing dramatically.
Importance of Network Leadership
Purpose-driven board leadership is very complementary to network leadership, a model we’ve practiced and promoted for many years. What is network leadership? It's about noticing groups who may not be able to access resources or have been marginalized by culture, and encouraging them to take action.
One of us (Jane) is an academic researcher who has studied leading nonprofit networks for more than two decades. Co-author, Marty, is a seasoned practitioner with decades of on-the-ground experience building and supporting nonprofit networks. We’re long-time colleagues with a shared goal to support nonprofit leaders in achieving greater mission impact; the opportunity to support others in accomplishing their own transformational impacts is what drives us.
For a network leader, two things are essential:
- A shift in mindset
- The application of a few foundational principles: focus on purpose before organization; manage through trust, not control; promote others, not yourself; and work by building constellations, not as a lone star.
Time and time again, in both research and first-hand practice, we see this approach generate outsized impact. And crucially, the increased impact is accomplished more efficiently, effectively, and sustainably. Network leadership has helped countless nonprofit organizations transform from lone stars to radiant constellations whose joint impact is far greater than the sum of their individual parts.
In recent months, we’ve conducted interviews with more than a dozen nonprofit and association leaders. The group includes both board members and staff serving a variety of missions around the world. Their stories bring to life the best practices of both purpose-driven board leadership and network leadership. We’re excited to partner with our colleagues at BoardSource to share the real world lessons these leaders have learned as they put these concepts into action.
NEW RESOURCE & INVITATION
- First, a new brief authored by Jane and Marty called Reimagining Boards for High Impact was released in December 2022. The brief contains practical examples from over a dozen nonprofit leaders and highlights six primary areas where boards can focus their energy to strengthen their community relationships and increase their impact. We encourage you to share this brief with your fellow board members and staff once it's made available.
- Second, a webinar was led by Jane and Marty on Tuesday, December 6th. The webinar highlighted recommendations from the brief and participants engaged in conversation on ways they are utilizing purpose-driven board leadership and network leadership. Watch the webinar recording on Reimagining Boards for High Impact.
As you dig into the hard work of introspection and change at your organization, please pass on your promising practices and "aha!" moments. BoardSource will be sharing a short form at the time the new brief will be released, where you can share your own story. As you continue on your journey, we encourage you to consider reserving time at an upcoming meeting to invite participants to share the things that most engaged, surprised, or challenged them and for the group to identify and discuss points that seem most applicable to your organization.
BoardSource is committed to supporting your essential work on the front lines of transformation.
About the authors:
Jane Wei-Skillern, PhD is currently a Senior Fellow at The Center for Social Sector Leadership at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, and previously served on the faculties of Stanford Graduate School of Business and Harvard Business School. Throughout her career, she has been committed to sharing practical lessons from her research to champion network practitioners and network leadership as critical to achieving transformational impact. Marty Kooistra is an avid network practitioner dedicating his life to coalition-based work at the intersection of community development, equity, and housing. He has served many organizations as both executive staff and governing board member, including board leadership roles.
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