“The recognition that organizational power and voice must be authorized by those impacted by the organization’s work.”
These words come from BoardSource’s new way of framing the role of nonprofit governing boards. And they resonate profoundly with me and my colleagues at Fund for Shared Insight, a national funder collaborative aiming to improve philanthropy by promoting and supporting ways for foundations and nonprofits to listen and respond to the people and communities who are most impacted by their decisions.
Our collaborative is committed to the kind of listening, partnering, and learning that values lived expertise and can shift power and lead to more equitable outcomes. That’s why I applaud BoardSource’s Four Principles of Purpose-Driven Board Leadership and in particular principle 4: authorized voice and power.
Anne Wallestad, president and CEO of BoardSource, laid out these principles earlier this year in a widely praised Stanford Social Innovation Review post. In detailing the fourth principle, she wrote that boards have a responsibility to ensure “that organizational decisions are made within the context of real understanding of community assets, needs, preferences, and aspirations.”
Shared Insight agrees that those who are most impacted by the decisions of nonprofits and foundations -- and typically least consulted -- can offer unique and valuable insights into how to bring about lasting, meaningful change. We want foundations and nonprofits to listen and respond to the people and communities most proximate to the problems they seek to solve. And we hope to see more foundations and nonprofits truly centering and being guided by this lived expertise.
Our new “Funder Action Menu,” a resource to help foundations think systematically about how to promote listening and feedback across the many dimensions of their work, includes examples of funders sharing power with constituents at every level of organizational decision-making. And we are seeing nonprofits we’ve partnered with through our client-feedback efforts embed people with lived expertise into their governance.
The Center for Employment Opportunities (CEO) has embraced listening to its participants, creating regional participant advocacy councils to inform its work as well as recruiting two former participants to serve on its national board of directors. This video tells the story of how CEO’s listening work is transforming both the organization and its constituents.
Through its participation in the feedback capacity-building program Listen4Good, Nurse-Family Partnership (NFP) systematized collecting high-quality feedback from the first-time moms it serves and institutionalized listening throughout the organization. Now, the national service office for Nurse-Family Partnership and Child First commits to including a former participant and a representative from a network partner organization on its board of directors.
Foundations should take note, especially since, in my experience, foundation board members — and others, such as big donors, who often are philanthropy’s decision-makers — typically have more wealth and vastly different life experiences than the people and communities most affected by their decisions. As Katherina Rosqueta, executive director of the Center for High Impact Philanthropy, observes, “Many donors seek to help communities they don’t live in and solve problems they don’t personally have. By relying primarily on people more like them and not seeking the perspective of the people and communities they hope to help, donors risk reinforcing socioeconomic and racial segregation.”
One example of a foundation that has made an intentional commitment to recruit board members more representative of its community is the Samuel S. Fels Fund in Philadelphia. Over the past three years, the board has evolved its composition and is now 75% BIPOC, with more than a third of board members born outside the United States. The board has adopted a set of values that include:
- Acknowledge that, as a private foundation, we are both a product of and response to social, racial, and economic injustice. Recognize the inherent power imbalance between community organizations and funders.
- Trust that those most directly harmed by injustice are in the best position to know what is needed to address harms and to build well-being.
- Aspire to reflect the diversity of the city, both on our staff and board of directors.
- Invite feedback, engage in dialogue, and hold ourselves accountable to our community members and to one another.
My hope is that more foundations will show up in the way the Fels Fund has. We’ve seen some progress in the sector and would love to hear from foundations that are embracing principle 4 so we can include their examples in our Funder Action Menu. There’s still a long way to go, both for foundations and nonprofits: BoardSource’s most recent Leading with Intent survey finds that half of all nonprofit chief executives say they do not have the right board members to “establish trust with the communities they serve.”
Turning that around might start with answering BoardSource’s call to adopt the four principles of its purpose-driven approach. If we do — with some special attention to the principle of authorized power and voice — philanthropy will be further on its way to redistributing power, working for systemic equity, and achieving greater effectiveness.
Melinda Tuan is the managing director of Fund for Shared Insight.
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