As a Nonprofit CEO, I knew that our Board would be vital for our success. Here is a glimpse of the journey we took to build greatness in our board, starting eleven years ago when I stepped up to lead Higher Achievement.
1- Fearless Prioritization: To serve on Higher Achievement’s board of directors, we are fearless in requiring FULL commitment. Serving this mission must be at least your #2 philanthropic priority to be considered for the board. Another cause may be #1, but Higher Achievement has to at least be #2.
2- Intentional Cultivation: When I stepped into the CEO role, the board was ~12% people of color. Especially given the scholars we serve (~98% Black and brown), staff composition (~70% people of color), and my identity as white woman, diversifying our board was critical. Today, ~53% of our board members are people of color, two of whom are Higher Achievement alumni – including our board chair. This took time. We enforced our board term limits, established an Emeritus Board, and intentionally prioritized nominees of color who brought critical skills.
3- Comprehensive, Cohort Orientation: Early on, I underinvested in board member orientation, just spending an hour one-on-one. It was quick, but not effective. Board members tended to sit on the sidelines for too long. Now, we onboard cohorts of board members each fall, with a three-hour orientation that includes sections from each senior staff leader on program model, results and evaluation, risk management, human resources, finance, fundraising, and communications. Now, board members enter the board retreat prepared.
4– Meaningful Meetings: We have to nix the “dog and pony shows”. Instead of presenting only positive results, we share all the data – positive, neutral, and negative – and our initial conclusions and lessons learned. Then, we ask a provocative question about the data and break into small groups to explore. Further, at least once per year, I meet one-on-one with each board member to hear about their board experience, their hopes/fears, and feedback for me.
5 – Regular Review: Every year, the board reviews my performance – alternating feedback from my direct reports and board members. Every other year, we conduct a board self-assessment. This practice has led to meaningful changes to board orientation, annual updates to the CEO succession plan, and more democratic opportunities for board members to voice interest in board leadership roles.
While we have made progress, there is more work to do, including to immerse the board more deeply in program. I hope my lessons learned are helpful to you.