Is Your Board Operating Purposefully?
Within philanthropic foundations, the Board of Directors is one of the key strategic bodies that support the organization in realizing positive societal impact. As such, good governance is essential not only in Board operations but also in allowing an organization to realize its objectives. This article will walk you through the basic tenets of purpose-driven Board leadership as a means of reimagining sound governance for your organization.
*The following summarizes the webinar “The Four Principles of Purpose-Driven Leadership” provided by BoardSource. You can access the recording here.
- Purpose before organization
Unsurprisingly, a purpose-driven board prioritizes its purpose above all else. An organisation’s purpose is its raison d’être, the reason it exists in the first place. It is an amalgamation of your organization’s mission and values.
What differentiates a purpose-driven Board from a traditional one is the “who” that is being served. A purpose-driven board is first and foremost in service to the community it serves. The Board’s responsibility is thus to establish an agenda that will realize the organization’s purpose and maximize positive impact. This is at the essence of “purpose before organization.”
Whereas a traditional board would ask, “What’s best for our organization?” the main guiding question for a purpose-driven board is “What’s best for the desired social outcome we seek?”
- Respect for ecosystem
An ecosystem is an interconnected system in which an organization operates. Respect for the ecosystem is an acknowledgment that your organization’s actions and decisions have palpable effects on its surrounding ecosystem – both positive and negative. Every action and decision made by the Board will have a ripple effect.
Purposeful Board leadership calls for a commitment to being a responsible actor and decision-maker within the ecosystem. This commitment is an ongoing process of learning, communication, and reflection among Board members. While this process will look different for each individual, it must be grounded in understanding the organization’s purpose and its role in the community.
As a Board member, it is crucial to have a thorough knowledge of who is impacted by the organization’s work, the nature of the societal challenges the organization is addressing, and the other players in this ecosystem. This list is by no means exhaustive. Rather, it should serve as a starting point to guide further learning.
Whereas a traditional board would ask: “How would this impact our organization,” the questions a purpose-driven Board would pose are “How would this impact all of the players and dynamics within our ecosystem? Will this create the best outcome for our overall ecosystem? Will it help us as an ecosystem to do the most good?”
- Equity mindset
An equity mindset encompasses “a commitment to advancing equitable outcomes, and interrogating and avoiding the ways in which the organization’s strategies and work may reinforce systemic inequities.”
An important means of institutionalizing the equity mindset is through the composition of the Board. There should be inclusivity surrounding race, gender, lived experiences, networks, skill sets, and expertise, among others. An inclusive Board is one that can operate on trust, respect, and collaboration. If there exists a disconnect between the Board and the community it serves, the organization runs the risk of being unaware of systemic inequities and possibly reinforcing them.
Equally important is the equity mindset in the Board’s decision-making, particularly in the allocation of resources. Moreover, a commitment to an equity mindset calls for critical evaluation and programmatic oversight that can identify any disparate impacts (disaggregate data is key here).
Whereas a traditional Board would ask, “How will our strategy advance our mission?” a purpose-driven Board would consider, “How could our strategy reinforce systemic inequities and what are we willing to do to avoid it?”
- Authorized voice and power
This element encompasses a “recognition that organizational power and voice must be authorized by those most impacted by the organization’s work.” Authorized voice and power is a necessary condition for building a true partnership with the community being served.
At the heart of this is the Board’s earning a right to lead. The Board must have a deep understanding of the community’s needs, preferences, and aspirations. A purpose-driven Board has a responsibility to share power by directly engaging with the community and ensuring the community’s needs are represented on the Board. This is where the inclusivity in Board composition – especially the inclusion of individuals with diverse lived experiences – comes into play.
Whereas a traditional Board would ask “What do we think is best?” (without reflection on who constitutes “we”), a purpose-driven Board would ask “Are we as a Board populated in a way that ensures our power is held by the community impacted by the organization’s work? Are we doing all we can to understand what our programmatic stakeholders tell us is most important?”
Towards a Purpose-Driven Board
Building purpose-driven Board leadership is an ongoing, incremental process and a substantive commitment. It requires asking difficult, critical questions about the operation, composition, and decisions of your Board. At its essence is a sincere willingness to build trust, perspective, and capacity.
I wish you the best of luck on this journey. Please do not hesitate to contact me with any questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.