7 principles of community-centric boards

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A while ago, a colleague and I, both haggard executive directors with involuntary eye twitches, were having lunch. Our conversation led us to our boards, and he told me of how his board chair scolded him for the egregious crime of forwarding a funding opportunity to another nonprofit. “He was mad that I helped our ‘competition’ by letting them know of a request for proposals from a foundation. I figured why wouldn’t we share RFPs with one another?”

Fast forward to now, several years and a pandemic later, and unfortunately, I still hear stories like this. Boards of directors are truly some of the biggest stressors in the sector, often more harmful than helpful, as I’ve written about here and here. But it’s partly because we’ve trained boards to think and act in certain ways, ways that over time help to entrench siloing, competitiveness, and survivalism.

Over the past two years, it’s been awesome to see the Community-Centric Fundraising (CCF) movement expand across the sector. Nonprofits are doing amazing things, like lifting up other missions, inviting donors into conversations about race and wealth disparity, dropping archaic practices like recognizing donors by levels of giving, etc. But community-centeredness shouldn’t just be limited to fundraising. Everything would benefit from community-mindedness. For example, it would be great if our hiring practices focused less on getting the best talent for our specific org, and more on developing talent for the entire sector.

In the same way, boards need to evolve to be more focused on what’s best for the community, not simply what’s best to advance specific missions. So, taking cue from the CCF movement and its principles, here are some tentative principles for the Community-Centric Board (CCB).

1.The work of the board must be grounded in racial, economic, and social justice: Boards are often way behind staff in getting trained and engaging in conversations and reflection on these issues. This frequently sets back organizations, as board members are often imbued with formal power that they use to prevent progress from being made. Too often the work of examining systemic racism, white supremacy, privileges, etc., is seen as an afterthought by many board members, or something they reluctantly sign up for. Yes, boards only have so many hours a month, but this is essential.

2.Boards must constantly reflect the communities being served: Our sector is rife with white saviors and other kinds of saviors, and this is especially present on boards. For a board to be effective and to minimize the potential harm it may cause, its members must reflect the community it’s serving in terms of race, gender, income-level, disability, etc. As communities continue to diversify, the board must be constantly alert to ensure it’s still reflective of the people it’s serving.

3.The board’s ultimate goal is ensuring the community’s well-being, not the organization’s survival: Most nonprofits exist with the purpose of making the world better; they do not exist simply to exist. Many orgs and their boards have forgotten this. The board plays a role in ensuring that the org is actually helping to create a just community. This means boards sometimes may need to encourage the org to put its mission on the backburner so that another, more urgent mission may receive the attention and resources it needs, if that is what’s necessary to advance a better society.  

4.The board encourages mutual support and collaboration among different missions: My colleague who shared a funding opportunity with another org should not have been scolded by his board, but praised. The Hunger Games approach has been toxic to our work. Missions are intertwined. The only way we can achieve our collective vision of a more just, more equitable world is if we act in solidarity with one another, including board members not only accepting, but encouraging their orgs to be supportive of other nonprofits, including sharing funding opportunities, and even declining funding if another org, especially orgs led by marginalized communities, could benefit more.

5.Boards are equal, not superior, to staff, volunteers, clients, and other members of the community: The CCF movement has worked hard to disabuse people of the idea that donors are the center of the universe, that they are heroes who should be worshipped above staff, volunteers, and clients. Along those lines, board members have had way too much power and influence, having adopted this ridiculous notion that they are the bosses of the staff and the highest authority at the org. Boards play an important role, but they are one element in a system that requires multiple elements for work to be done effectively. Boards are no more important than staff, or volunteers, or clients, and should act accordingly.  

6.Lived-experience is valued above wealth and the connection to wealth: Right now, we value money as the most important contribution. This is why funders still ask the inane question regarding 100% board giving. It’s never “what percentage of your board members have first-hand experience with the issues your org is trying to address?” But lived-experience needs to placed much higher. Board members who have experienced homelessness, poverty, or whatever issues the org is trying to tackle, must have more influence on boards than what is currently happening, which is whoever gives the most money or has the most access to people with wealth are most influential.

7.Boards must play a critical role in collective efforts to bring about racial, economic, and social justice: Over the past years, so many boards not only stayed out of taking critical stances against white supremacy, police violence, homophobia, transphobia, etc., but actively prevented their staff from doing so. Again, it is not good enough simply for an organization to grow and run its programs and services. Board must constantly assess and reflect on whether their organizations are helping to restore equity and justice in the world. Boards must have the courage to take public positions and actions that advance a more just society.

For a long time, we’ve resigned ourselves to putting up with terrible boards, as we could not imagine anything different. It doesn’t have to be this way. If boards can get out of the role we’ve imposed on them–that of risk-averse, liabilities-focused, micromanaging, mission-driven watchdog donors–and into a more expansive role where they focus on what’s best for the entire community, our sector and world would be better off.

Or at least EDs’ eyes would stop twitching so much.

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