By Karen Greve Milton, Senior Consultant, Danosky & Associates
It seems as if I have been involved in governance matters with non-profit organizations throughout my professional life, and even before that, if you count serving as president of my college choral group. At present, I serve as a volunteer director on a board of a national non-profit organization dedicated to promoting civic education to citizens of all ages, or “cradle to grave” as we like to think of our mission. Our directors are located throughout the country from the West Coast to the East Coast with the Mid-West in between. Our constituencies also are located throughout our nation, from coast-to-coast, including Hawaii and Alaska.
Due to the pandemic, we have only met virtually through the wonders of Zoom for almost three years. During this time, our long-serving Executive Director retired, a new Executive Director was hired, long-serving Board members left and were succeeded by new Board members, new senior professional staff was hired to oversee programs, development and operations, new audit and financial investment firms were selected, and we re-drafted our by-laws and mission statement. And like all of us, we handled all these matters without any face-to-face meetings. We even held our annual in-person Board Retreat and Meeting last year by Zoom.
Next month, our Board members and senior/executives will meet in-person for the first time since the pandemic. Half the Board members have never met in-person since joining our organization. Our senior/executive staff, including our Executive Director, has never met in-person with the full Board. Although I only in the middle of my first term on the Board, I coordinated last year’s virtual annual Board Retreat and Meeting and am performing the same service this year. Last year’s annual meeting focused on our organization’s mission and mission statement: who we are as an entity and what we do in our jurisdictional area to affect that mission.
Our focus for the discussion at this year’s annual meeting will be different from last year. This year, we intend to focus on our purpose or the reason we exist, rather than our mission. As we prepare for this year’s annual Board Retreat and Meeting, I have been scouring various websites for articles to include in our Board Meeting packet. In the Stanford Social Innovation Review, a March 2021 article, by Anne Wallestad, then-CEO & President of BoardSource, entitled, “The Four Principles of Purpose-Driven Board Leadership,” caught my attention. In her article, Ms. Wallestad argues, rather convincingly, that today’s non-profit boards need to be purpose-driven rather than mission-focused with fidelity to the organization’s reason for existence in its ecosystem with an emphasis on seeking equitable outcomes in its decisions and ensuring that the community served by the organization has a voice, if not a seat at the board.
With our new Executive Director, my Board colleagues and I invested significant time over the past year in re-thinking and re-defining our organization’s mission and redrafting our by-laws. Through our new Executive Director, we reached out to sister organizations in our ecosystem—for the first time in our history—and began exchanging ideas as to how we all shared the same mission: promoting non-partisan civic education. We also expanded the diversity of our Board membership geographically, racially and demographically.
In thinking about the strides our Board has made in these pandemic years, we seem to be poised to take up the gauntlet posed by Anne Wallestad in her 2021 article. This year, as we gather together in-person, our discussion will focus on her four principles of purpose-driven board leadership:
Purpose: defining the reason our organization exists in today’s world
Ecosystem: gaining a perspective about our sister organizations and considering the effect that our decisions may have on them and their purpose.
Equity: ensuring that our decisions create equitable outcomes and
Authorized voices & power: making sure that we give voice to the communities we serve and include them in our decisions.
I believe it is important for all non-profit boards to engage in this dialogue and embrace this new way of looking at their organizations:
- their reason for existing,
- how their decisions affect their ecosystem,
- how they can continue to improve equitable outcomes for their actions, and
- how they can identify better ways to engage the communities they serve.
Purpose-driven boards will be more engaged with the communities they serve. It is through this stronger engagement that their communities will help the board find new and innovative means to promote their organization’s purpose for existing. By better defining their purpose, they also will develop a board member profile that promotes their organization’s purpose in multiple areas; thereby making their vision, their reality.