For this post, I spoke to a CEO who started just before we all went into COVID lockdown. Being new, her board asked for regular reports on her activities which became even more important once COVID hit. She realized that board members cannot truly appreciate the importance of equity and antiracism if they don’t understand the day-to-day work of the organization. She also observed that holding meetings online became an equalizer for a diverse board.
CEO Reports Leads Board to Better Understanding of Equity
As told by a CEO somewhere in the US
I was Chief Program Officer before I became CEO. Three months after I started, COVID happened. As a new leader, the board asked me to do an agency update at the beginning of every board meeting which turned out to be a good thing. It allowed me to bring the work of the staff into the board meeting – even for just ten minutes. They asked me to do this report because they wanted to know what I was doing. Because I was new. Most of what I was doing was operations and programs, so I talked about it.
I had attended board meetings while I was Chief Program Officer and they rarely talked about the program work. I think staying at a higher level, talking about strategic topics, is understandable when everything was going fine. But what I came to understand is that many board members did not understand the heart of the work that we do. When you think about racial equity and antiracism, it lives in our missional work. It is easier for board members to understand their role in this work when they understand how equity shows up in the day-to-day framework.
COVID Shifted Everything Making Agency Updates Imperative
With COVID, our work shifted dramatically. When I present to the board, I focus on the impact. But I also need to let them know if something is coming – new money, redirecting, doing something differently. They need to understand what is happening. The board has a deep investment in the strategic direction and vision of the organization. So, I became more detailed in my agency update. Much of what I was sharing was new. It was about CARES funding. It was about changing our services. It was about revising contracts. Giving the report created a cadence that we had not had before. Now months later, we always have an agency update which allows me to talk about what we are doing and where our challenges are.
Developing a Board Rooted in Equity
I think this knowledge is part and parcel of developing a board that is rooted in equity. I pulled back the curtains a little bit for the board and showed them what was really happening day to day in the organization that they have oversight of. This does not mean I have invited them into the operational decision making because that sits with me and my team. But I have invited their input and their thought processes. And I have definitely invited them into the anti-racism work. I think that has been a palpable shift. Because when I stand in front of them and I talk about the work, I specifically talk about how the work is impacting the most marginalized BIPOC communities over and over. When I share these strategies and efforts, it engages board members in a different way.
We have also added more staff exposure to the board. We have an all-staff meeting every other week and one of them always falls on the monthly board meeting day, so our board chair or vice chair comes and shares the agenda, talks about what we are going to address, and fields questions. We have a racial equity team, and we are creating a seat for a board member that will rotate every two years to invite them into the heart of that work. Things like that are higher risk – in the sense of inviting the board into the true grit of the organization.
Being Online Is an Equalizer Which Is also About Equity
One of the many silver linings of COVID – if we are going to go through an 18-month experience, we have to acknowledge the good stuff – is that it has thrown the rules out the window. I think that being all online benefits us especially because we have such a large geographic area. The frequency of connection is greater. It also equalizes how people get to participate. That’s important. It’s about equity. We get more faces in the room reliably now that we are all online. We used to have board meetings in the middle of the day but because of distance and other responsibilities, there were always some people who would call in. And there were always technical problems. There was a disconnect for the people calling in. You could see it. This does not happen anymore because we are all online. I also think that it has created a bit of an intimacy that has allowed for more honest conversation. Everyone is experiencing a similar upheaval. It is not as if our board members live in a different world. You have board members with kids running around in the background.
On the other hand, being online means people have lost connection, especially new board members. It is hard to enter a new situation. So, for new board members, there has to be an element of more connection and unity. In this moment, we don’t have any choice. So, we do things like double up on the board buddies. Make sure there is deep orientation, that lots of people are checking in. There is a lot more conversation. Our board is going to do some more fun virtual gatherings which I think is great as we realize that some people are not getting that community element. It is forcing us to be a little more creative.
- Board members need to understand program to understand how equity impacts your clients.
- Zoom meetings have led to better attendance and better conversations – with an organization with wide geography, not all people ever attended in person. Having everyone online is better than having some together and some online.