An Imperative for Nonprofit Boards: The Time is Now to Step Up Your Game

This piece originally appeared on BoardSource’s Exceptional Boards blog.

Over the years, I’ve had the great privilege of serving on a wide range of boards — from early stage startup companies to large, established nonprofits — and have observed firsthand the variety of hats we board members can wear. The role of board member compels us to be diligent in our roles as fiduciaries, but that’s just the beginning of our responsibilities. We also need to be champions of and networkers for the organizations we serve. And, particularly in a world where change is accelerating and disruption is becoming the norm, we also need to step up and challenge the organizations we care so much about.

Drop into the average board meeting as an observer and you’ll be quick to spot the fiduciary at work, or the helpful board member offering up valuable insights or supportive compliments. What might be harder to spot is the “fearless challenger” in the mix. And this is for a good reason: Quite commonly, board members view their role as “protector” of the organization, legally bound to ensure the longevity and solvency of their organization. For some, this mandate is a call to exercise an abundance of caution and focus on risk mitigation — in essence, do what they can to be sure bad things don’t happen. But, while of course that’s important, it’s incomplete. Today’s board members have to go further, and challenge the organization to be sure good things happen, too.

Earlier this year, BoardSource released Leading with Intent: A National Index of Nonprofit Board Practices 2015 in which chief executives and board chairs used BoardSource’s 10 basic responsibilities of nonprofit boards — including mission, financial oversight and strategy — to assess their board’s performance. The result was a disappointing B- average, reflecting “responsible, but not necessarily exceptional, performance.” The Leading with Intent survey found that boards have a particularly difficult time adapting and adjusting to change, noting that “boards do well at functions related to compliance and oversight, but face challenges with their strategic and external work.”

Given the critical role boards play in influencing and guiding the work of social sector organizations, when it comes to performance, anything less than exceptional is simply unacceptable. Underpinning all of our fiduciary and legal responsibilities on the boards we serve is the need to help our organizations adapt, innovate and…change.

We live in a world where the pace of change is unprecedented. It’s not just the old organizations that have to reinvent their ways of doing business to keep pace, even new and highly successful organizations such as Google, Facebook and Amazon routinely adapt their structures, their practices and even their workforce to stay relevant and ensure they are well poised for the future or adapting to new market opportunities as they emerge.

In the social sector, many of the organizations we serve are on the front lines of the world’s most pressing challenges where the “same old way of doing things” is simply not an option. As noted in the Leading with Intent report, this assessment should serve as a wake-up call for boards. If we want to move from a B- to an A+, we all have work to do. We must understand that while risk mitigation is important, it’s also important to push the organizations we serve to try new things, experiment and challenge the status quo. Often for an organization to stay nimble, it needs to feel it has the backing of its board to take some risks and be bold. If we, as board members, don’t provide the requisite “air cover” to encourage risk taking, we are not really serving the organizations’ long-term interests.

Through time there have been many examples of organizations we can learn from that missed the mark on these fronts. Shouldn’t Kodak have brought us Instagram? Shouldn’t Blockbuster have brought us Netflix? Instead, they were utterly disrupted by these upstarts. These companies didn’t have their heads in the sand — they were aware of the upstart challenges — but they didn’t organize and prioritize to meet the challenge. They were taking what they thought was the safe route, and it turned out to be the risky route. They were stuck playing defense, when they needed to play offense.

If we are privileged to serve in board roles then we need to be bold enough to ask the hard questions and challenge the organizations we are there to support. In this period of great disruption and change, it is imperative that boards don’t just focus on the current operations, but also keep an eye toward the future — and make room for the necessary strategic conversations about the future.

How can these ideas be put into practice? Here are three specific suggestions:

  • Ask your CEO to highlight “threats and opportunities” as a routine part of board sessions, not just report out on current operations. On this point, remember that often everything is fine until it is not, so relying just on current operating activities without an eye on the broader landscape can represent its own “head in the sand” risk.
  • Make sure someone at the table is routinely asking, “How is the landscape around us changing, and are we adapting fast enough to meet these challenges and leverage new opportunities?” If you don’t have board members asking these questions already, you can “assign” this role to a given board member or members to ensure that the requisite conversation takes place. This “designated hitter” approach (often via a lead director) offers a safe and effective method to put on the table what some board members are really thinking or questioning, but often don’t feel comfortable to be the first to put forth. By openly “assigning” this role at the start of dialogue, a CEO can get the “unspoken” issues on the table.
  • Ask the CEO what she/he needs to ensure that the organization’s future can be ensured, and strengthened. As a board, be prepared to listen carefully to the answer to this question. All too often budgets are prepared under the assumption of what the board expects. What the board really needs to know is what the CEO really thinks the right path forward should be — not what the CEO thinks the board wants to hear, or might readily approve.

By formally inviting an all-cards-on-the-table conversation, board members can be candid and honest in providing feedback, without worrying that their suggestions or critiques might be viewed as unsupportive. This kind of dialogue can help build trust and a sense that “we are all in this together,” which can go a long way to furthering the goals of the board and the organization.

Last year, I had the privilege of speaking at the BoardSource Leadership Forum about why we all need to Be Fearless in the social sector. I laid out the five key principles that typically are present when organizations or movements achieve transformative breakthroughs. The response was overwhelming, as I heard from many in the community afterwards about what they were already doing in line with the Be Fearless principles, or what they were inspired to do moving forward.

Since then, we have been working closely with practitioners in the field to improve our Be Fearless Framework for Action. We heard from many of you what worked and what didn’t, and as a result we’ve revamped the tools, to make them more useful — including adding more ways to assess your organization and identify opportunities for increasing your impact.

I invite you to check out the new Framework at — and hope you will let me know what you think about it so we can continue to improve it.

Being the fearless one in the room — especially the boardroom — is never easy, but it is necessary if we are going to fully support individuals and organizations that will create the transformative change the world needs. These ideas may seem foreign to some, given the traditional boardroom dynamics that are so commonplace, but they are grounded in real-world examples and best-in-class practices that yield results…results the world cannot wait for any longer.

Jean Case is CEO of the Case Foundation, and serves in a number of board roles, including: the National Geographic Board of Trustees; Accelerate Brain Cancer Cure (ABC2); SnagFilms; BrainScope Company, Inc.; and the White House Historical Association. In addition, she is also a member of several advisory boards, including: Georgetown University’s Beeck Center for Social Impact & Innovation; Harvard Business School’s Social Enterprise Initiative; and the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society.

Be Fearless Spotlight: Baltimore Corps

This Spotlight is authored by guest writer Caitlin Kelly as part of a special blog series by the Case Foundation featuring Be Fearless stories from the field. Follow along with us as we meet people and learn about organizations that are taking risks, being bold and failing forward in their efforts to create transformative change in the social sector.

Too many people still think of his city as a morass of strife and failure, says Fagan Harris, co-founder and CEO of Baltimore Corps, an innovative two-year-old organization working to change that perception.

In April 2015, after police arrested Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old African-American Baltimore resident who later died in police custody, the city erupted, with at least 20 police officers injured, 250 people arrested and hundreds of businesses damaged. Vehicles and buildings were burned and pharmacies looted. It looked like an episode of the unrelentingly grim television show that, for many, still defines the city, The Wire.

Harris, who grew up in and around Baltimore and who returned in his late 20s, is passionate about the city’s potential, despite the “fact that too many people, when they think of Baltimore, imagine a broken, dysfunctional city. The truth is Baltimore is home to creative thinkers and truly visionary leadership working everyday to strengthen community,” he argues. This understanding of the opportunities that lie within Baltimore—and many other cities that share a similar history—is what drove Harris to develop a bold approach to forging a new talent pipeline for the city.

Baltimore Corps is a committed group of 35 skilled professionals working closely with a range of cause leaders at leading nonprofits, social enterprises and government agencies to accelerate and scale the impact of effective models for social change. Each cause leader and placement organization pays their Fellow(s) stipend and a nominal program fee to Baltimore Corps. Fellows work full-time at their placement and commit for one year.

Fellows earn a baseline stipend of $32,000; Baltimore Corps aggressively markets its fellowship to talented Millennials across Baltimore and the country, and the organization saw 500 applicants last year for its 35 fellowship positions. To insure a strong mix of local knowledge and fresh thinking, “the best of both worlds,” adds Harris, half of those accepted are city residents.

“At Baltimore Corps, we’ve made a big bet that Baltimore is a frontier of social change,” says Harris, a graduate of Stanford and a Rhodes Scholar. “What New York City is to finance and San Francisco is to technology, Baltimore is for social change. If we can get it right here, we can get it right anywhere. We have more models for strengthening communities than many other places.”

The Corps’ work combines several simultaneous initiatives: to attract the best and brightest workers committed to effecting social change, to help local nonprofits and government retain them so they can grow and better achieve their goals and, through those combined efforts, to help Baltimore thrive. The riots lent an urgency to Baltimore Corp’s work as his staff “did a ton of volunteerism” and several fellows, due to begin their jobs in September, began in June instead. “We responded urgently to help clean and build up and relocate people. As a place-based organization, it’s critical that you’re a good neighbor.”

The city needs them to stay—and they need good jobs; nine of ten of the first class of fellows were hired full-time at the end of their work with Baltimore Corps, a result that thrills, but doesn’t surprise Harris. “We work hard to recruit for fit,” he says.

But initially attracting bright, ambitious fellows who’ll choose to make a life in Baltimore after their year’s commitment is a challenge, Harris admits. “It’s working so far, but it is a challenge.” Popularly, Baltimore is still seen as a second or third-tier city, Millennials are “very, very mobile” and many are deeply wary of any work involving government. To sweeten the offer, the program opens a deep network to fellows, offering ready access to corporate executives, even the city’s mayor, which would be nearly impossible in a larger city.

Baltimore Corps, unusually for a new, growing nonprofit, relies heavily on technology and data to keep careful track of fellows’ work, of their satisfaction and their work’s impact, checking in with each of them every 90 days. The hands-on approach can be emotionally draining, he admits. “This is risky, hard work. It can be heart-wrenching and lead to some soul-searching conversations.” The diversity of our corps and placement partners is powerful but it also challenges…A leader with an Ivy MBA tends to rely on different approaches than a leader who hasn’t graduated high school, and pairing the two has produced “abundant examples of friction,” Harris admits. “We ask for humility and patience. It’s not something we try to paper over.”

“We need more people in the fight putting their shoulder to the wheel and pushing,” says Harris. Bringing talent into Baltimore to partner with the city’s most promising cause leaders and social impact organizations propels ambitious professionals and graduates eager to accelerate their social justice careers, and the city has seen an out-migration of people in their 20s and 30s, leaving local groups and agencies hamstrung, he says. “When we think about scaling the most important and impactful work, we have to ask ‘What’s the hold-up?’ It’s not money or a lack of ambition. It’s deploying the right human capital to drive scale.”

After a local group, Thread, which helps underachieving high school students, found new blood through Baltimore Corps, the program scaled their organization by a third.

The fellows work with a wide range of partners, some with social entrepreneurs who are building organizations with only two or three people to large, bureaucratic and long-established agencies like the City Health Department. “That’s maybe non-traditional,” says Harris, “but we need to work with all of Baltimore. That’s really been a value of ours since Day One.” Doing so effectively means creating what he calls “a tapestry” of small and large social enterprises, nonprofits and government agencies and departments “working together to meaningfully promote the city.” Key to his vision is getting groups together to share information that typically don’t, who normally choose to “silo” their knowledge instead of cooperating.

The Corps’ five-member board “has been really tremendous,” offering “new energy and a new perspective” by attending staff meetings and giving plenty of feedback. “They’re very hands-on. They’re tremendous partners who are not just a board but five really terrific advisors.”

“Our number one goal is to identify what’s working here and grow it,” says Harris. “The families, the neighborhoods, the city–we really want to see things strengthen and improve.”

Feeling inspired? If you’re ready to begin your own Be Fearless journey start by downloading our free Be Fearless Action Guide and Case Studies.

Photo credit: Flickr user Cayusa, used via Creative Commons.