A Conversation with BoardSource's Jim TaylorSeptember 2021
PMA's Charmain Lewis interviewed Jim Taylor, the VP of Leadership Initiatives and Education at BoardSource, the nonprofit whose mission is "to inspire and support excellence in nonprofit governance and board and staff leadership." Jim is a friend of the firm and two-time podcast guest on Your Path to Nonprofit Leadership.
Leadership Initiatives and Education
Tell me about your journey into the nonprofit world and the work you are doing at BoardSource.
My journey into the nonprofit world actually started during my time in the corporate sector. At the beginning of my career I worked for Fannie Mae as a developer of affordable housing programs that were intended to serve low to moderate income first-time homebuyers. A major component of the programs was our development of partnerships with nonprofit housing counseling agencies that helped homebuyers navigate the homebuying process and helped them become successful homeowners over the long term. Then when I was at Capital One, I was a community reinvestment act officer and a corporate social responsibility director. In both of these roles, I worked in partnership with the nonprofit sector on philanthropy and programming that was designed to increase access to opportunity for lower income audiences on affordable housing, education, financial literacy, economic development, and asset building. And it was during those Capital One years that I started my own board service; I've now served on 6 boards in my career.
These experiences (among others) have been great preparation for my current role at BoardSource, where I lead BoardSource's external programming for the nonprofit sector on diversity, equity, and inclusion. This includes leading the organization's work to spark and support understanding, action, and change at the board level on these issues; serving as an external representative, speaker, and writer; developing new resources and programming; and partnering with peer organizations around the country.
What makes a great board of directors?
A board of directors can be great if it consistently brings an "equity lens" to its work in several ways. First, the board needs to be diverse in its composition diverse in skill sets, areas of expertise, access to various networks, and diverse in terms of racial and ethnic diversity and in the "lived experiences" that inform the perspectives of board members. We also believe that boards need to build an inclusive culture, a culture that's characterized by trust, candor and respect for everyone. Every board member should feel a sense of welcoming and belonging. And the board also needs to be equity-focused in understanding and developing strategies in the societal context in which the organization operates. The board should recognize that it doesn't operate in a vacuum; it needs to understand the ecosystem in which it operates, which includes the public policy environment and how it relates to the organization's mission; the role the organization plays relative to the roles of other stakeholders in the ecosystem; and the needs and priorities of the community that it serves.
What is the biggest issue facing boards today?
Today's boards are operating at an extremely challenging time in our society. We see the scope and breadth of the systemic inequities that exist in so many areas of our society, including health, wealth, criminal justice, education, employment, and housing, just to name a few. Nonprofits led by their boards play unique in bridging societal divisions like the ones we face today, and the task is made even more difficult in this moment because organizations themselves are under such stress as they operate during the ongoing pandemic. The challenges boards face are great, but boards are not currently well-positioned to face them. Too many boards are populated in a way that limits their ability to provide the kind of values-driven, strategic leadership and oversight that organizations need. We believe that it is time for real change in how boards understand and embody their leadership role.
During your podcast with Patton last spring, you talked about the importance of diversity on boards. Why does diversity matter in the boardroom?
First of all, creating a diverse board is the right thing to do, from a moral perspective. People who are the most impacted by the board's and the organization's work should have a role in the decisions that the board makes in service to the community. But it's more than that; boards that are diverse have more robust conversations, they have a more well-rounded perspective on the issues, and as a result they make better, more well-informed decisions. Boards that are not diverse tend to be too disconnected from the communities; they are less likely to have established trust from members of the community serve and they are likely to have less knowledge of those communities. Boards that are not diverse may very well have the best of intentions, but their lack of diversity can lead to strategies and action plans that miss the mark, and may unintentionally lead to regression rather than progress forward in the organization's mission. To sum it up, the diversity of your board composition matters, and when your board is not diverse, it is more prone to make strategic mistakes.
To what do you attribute the lack of diversity on boards?
I think there are several factors that contribute to the lack of diversity on boards. First, some boards are very accustomed to recruiting by focusing on identifying people that they already know and often these are people who are very much like themselves -- people who are of similar socioeconomic backgrounds and perspectives and are also white. Boards are also not fully aware (or perhaps not fully convinced) that by becoming more diverse, they will actually become better, more impactful boards. Boards are also, just like the individuals who comprise them, "creatures of habit"; if they've recruited a certain way, they are reluctant to change because change brings uncertainty. They would be bringing people onto the board that they don't know as well (if at all), and these individuals might bring very different perspectives that would require boards to share power differently. I think some boards are reluctant to do this.
How can a nonprofit organization do a better job of diversifying its board of directors?
I think there are several things that nonprofit organizations can do differently to diversify boards. It can conduct diversity-focused board searches on sites like indeed.com or LinkedIn, or on sites like boardmemberconnect.com or volunteermatch.org. It can also reach out to local chapters of national ethnic and civic associations like the National Black Chamber of Commerce, the Hispanic National Bar Association and the National Black MBA Association. Organizations can also engage staff members in the search; staff members are closest to the work of the organizations and may come into contact with leaders in other organizations who might be excellent, diverse board candidates. And lastly, every board member (not just board members of color) should think about and act on ways that they can expand their own networks to identify potential diverse candidates. All of these actions can help an organization diversify its board and build the principles of equity and inclusion into its board culture.
What are the resources nonprofits need to utilize in order to develop a strong and effective board?
There are lots of great tools and resources that can help nonprofits develop a strong and effective board. We've developed a DEI website that includes lots of resources, tools, blogs, and research; I would invite everyone to go to our site and take a look. We also have a tool called Taking Action on Board Diversity: Five Questions to Get You Started; we think this is an excellent tool for boards that want to begin to have conversations about diversity, equity, and inclusion and why it matters to them and what a commitment to this work means to their mission, their work, and the communities they serve. I also really like a publication by an organization called Equity in the Center called Awake to Woke to Work: Building a Race Equity Culture. It's an excellent tool for organizations that are making a commitment to this work (at the board level and organization-wide).
BoardSource CEO Anne Wallestad wrote an article for the Stanford Social Innovation Review that addressed the Four Principles of Purpose-Driven Board Leadership. Can you define Purpose-Driven Board Leadership and explain what it looks like in action?
As you mentioned, Anne recently wrote a terrific article called "The Four Principles of Purpose-Driven Board Leadership" that appeared in the Stanford Social Innovation Review. In the piece, Anne calls out the fact that nonprofit boards play important role in providing values-driven, strategic leadership and oversight that organizations, but boards as they are currently operating are not well-positioned to lead us toward a more equitable future as a society. We believe that change is necessary change that focuses on the four principles of purpose-driven board leadership.
The four principles are the following:
Purpose before organization a prioritization of the organization's purpose, versus the organization itself
Respect for ecosystem an acknowledgement that the organization's actions can positively or negatively impact its surrounding ecosystem, and a commitment to being a respectful and responsible ecosystem player
Equity mindset a commitment to advancing equitable outcomes, and interrogating and avoiding ways in which the organization's strategies and work may reinforce systemic inequities
Authorized voice and power the recognition that organizational power and voice must be authorized by those impacted by the organization's work.
I really encourage everyone to read the piece, think about it and how it can apply to their organizations, and share it with their networks. I also want to mention that in addition to the article itself, we've also developed a conversation starter resource that provides activities that boards can use to start a conversation about how the principles of purpose-driven board leadership might change the way that your board deliberates.
What's new at BoardSource?
Well, first of all, we're extremely excited about the Four Principles of Purpose-Driven Board Leadership and the initial responses that we're seeing in the sector. In recent months we've held several webinars on this topic (with many more scheduled webinars throughout the rest of 2021) and we've posted a series of blogs from social sector leaders highlighting various aspects of Purpose-Driven Board Leadership and what it means for the sector and individual organizations and leaders.
We also recently introduced our new version of our signature study, Leading with Intent. This year's Leading with Intent includes our usual focus on emerging trends, practices, and performance in the nonprofit sector, but we've also added a special supplement to Leading with Intent that focuses exclusively on the diversity, equity, and inclusion findings in our study.
And as we move into the second half of 2021, this fall we plan to release a new publication called "Putting Purpose First" which applies the principles of purpose-driven board leadership to the board's three essential roles (setting direction and strategy, providing oversight, and ensuring resources).
So there's a lot happening at BoardSource at present, and there's more to come in the future.