In this story, I talk to a long-time corporate executive who joined several boards after retiring. He reflects on how last year’s protests have advanced his journey around understanding bias and the need of board members to champion social justice and systems change — because the system treats people differently. He also discusses how he thinks COVID will change nonprofit boards in the future.
Every Board Needs to Stand up for Social Justice
Told by a board member somewhere in the US.
I was in the corporate world for a long time and served on many corporate boards. When I retired, I decided to engage with the community through not-for-profit work. I had done check writing before, but I wanted to use my personal wealth and my special talents as I could to make a difference. I wanted to go narrow and deep. I joined two boards including one where I have the lived experience of the people we serve. I have some thoughts about boards that are informed by the events of the last year.
I think every not-for-profit organization should be an engine for social justice. The protests of the last year powerfully reinforced this for me. Organizations should be standing up and yelling that the system is broken and that it is broken along racial lines. We — the people who support not-for-profits — also need to become active and support systems change because it is the right thing to do. Full stop.
Social Justice in How You Do Your Work
A key part of social justice is how you do your work. Our organization has moved over the years to a trauma-informed approach, understanding that the people we serve have been victimized. The system treats certain classes of people differently. If we want to be genuine to the clients we serve, our service needs to be informed by their trauma. As an organization and as board members of an organization, we need to call attention to these injustices and insist that solutions be brought to bear.
At this organization, we knew we wanted systems to improve. We knew we wanted biases to be removed. So, we have had to go on a journey about our own biases. We had supporters – big supporters – who did not like this direction. As a board, we had to be strong in our convictions. We had to say that our mission for social justice was so important that we would leave behind five- or six-figure donations. We did this because we believe we have a moral obligation to change the way we work and to use our voices against injustice.
A Board Should Be as Diverse as the Clients It Serves
I did not fully understand the benefits of an inclusive environment. It was an area that I was not particularly skilled at. I am always learning. Our clients pushed us on this issue. They were overt. “Why should I be listening to you tell me how I should solve my problems? You are the cause of my problems.” If we are going to change systems and promote social justice, then I believe that a not-for-profit board should be as diverse as the clients it serves and as diverse as the community it serves them in. In the past, boards were mostly people who wrote checks. Now the board can have some people who write checks, but it should also have people it serves. People who have lived these problems have different skills sets and expertise than “traditional” board members. The challenge for the next wave of leaders is to navigate the balance of these two groups.
So that brings me to the next point. We have to be clear what each board member is being asked to bring to the table. You want a diverse board to bring diverse skills, expertise, and lived experiences to the organization’s leadership. The CEO needs to view every board member as a tool in a diverse toolbox. Sometimes the CEO will reach out to a board member because they bring something to the current challenge or conversation. Sometimes they won’t reach out because the board member is not a net positive for the situation. If each board member is aware of why they are on the board, they won’t take it personally when the CEO reaches out to a different board member in a particular situation. You don’t want board members to think that they are not being used. You want board members to understand that the CEO is trying to solve different problems.
Zoom Meetings Are More Effective and Have Better Attendance
The other big event this past year, of course, is COVID. I don’t know that COVID started many new trends, but it has accelerated trends that were already underway. One is Zoom meetings. Video conferencing has been around for a long time. I have done video conferencing for 20 years. But now it’s widespread. It’s in your hand. Everyone knows how to use it. It becomes quite transformative when a board can embrace Zoom and continue to function as a unit.
The board chair for one organization was early to embrace tech. Our executive committee used to meet for breakfast in person every month and she replaced it with Zoom. The level of participation is higher: the board members are there and focused. She runs a tight ship, so we start on time and end on time. We follow an agenda. And to her credit, she insists that everyone use the camera. You can’t just dial in. Quantitatively and qualitatively, it is an incredibly good experience. We are far more productive. You don’t have the leave the house. You don’t have to drive to the office in the cold and dark, wasting 20 minutes each way. We get the work done. The net-net of this example is a much better dynamic on the executive committee because we have everyone there for every meeting.
While meeting remotely has many benefits, personal relationships are important. Sharing a meal together is a social ritual that is thousands of years old. You cannot do that over Zoom. Pre-Covid board meetings were 100% in person. During COVID, board meetings have been 100% on Zoom. Post COVID, we will have a mix. Maybe 60-40, maybe 70-30, maybe 50-50. The result will be better than it was either 100% all one or 100% the other. I don’t think we can know what the right mix is today. I cannot imagine Zoom not being a part of how a board functions going forward because everyone had done it.
Hiring Is More Efficient
Hiring is another area. Everyone has gone through a process now of hiring over zoom. In the past, out of town candidates were required to get on an airplane. Local people had to take time off work. In-person meetings are very important, but I can get higher contribution from more people interviewing online. I can do panel interviews. Everyone can see everyone. Then when the candidate is logged off, we immediately have a debrief. Going forward, I think second interviews will be in person, but not the first interview. I think this is better for everyone. The candidate does not waste their time on a potential position that was never going to work. In my experience you can quickly identify those people who are not going to fit into your culture on Zoom and eliminate those early and save everyone a lot of time.
The Importance of Risk Management
A final area that has accelerated is board-driven effort around risk management. Again, I give the board chair credit for spearheading the formation of a task force that then became a standing committee. We did some risk management before COVID. But COVID reminded us of its importance and made us more sensitive to types of risks we would not otherwise have thought of.
- Nonprofit boards need to stand up for social justice and systems change.
- A board should be as diverse as clients served.
- Board members should know why they are on the board so they understand why the CEO reaches out to them to solve a problem.
- Zoom has improved board meetings and hiring, but we cannot stay 100% online.
- COVID highlighted the importance of risk management.
Really good content here, Janet. Especially liked the point that an ED or CEO will call on different board members for different situations and it’s important the the board understands what their specific area of expertise is.
These all resonate for me! I especially appreciate the call to action around standing up for social justice as a board and adjusting organization practices to align with that focus, as well as diversifying the board. Lots of lessons learned this past year and we need to keep adapating. Thanks, Janet!