In 2021, Anne Wallestad, the widely respected former CEO of BoardSource, wrote one of the most important articles on nonprofit governance I’ve ever read, The Four Principles of Purpose-Driven Board Leadership (Stanford Social Innovation Review). We’ve previously written about the article’s proposed governance model here and here. The article emphasized that nonprofit boards must govern with consideration of not just mission, but also with “purpose,” defined as  an organization’s reason for being in the world, a melding of the concepts of mission and values in pursuit of vision. To do this, boards must also respect their organization’s ecosystem and the impact of their organization’s activities.

Principles of a Purpose-Driven Board

Purpose-Driven Board Leadership is a mindset characterized by four fundamental principles that define the way that the board sees itself and its work:

  1. Purpose before organization: prioritizing the organization’s purpose, versus the organization itself.
  2. Respect for ecosystem: acknowledging that the organization’s actions can positively or negatively impact its surrounding ecosystem, and a commitment to being a respectful and responsible ecosystem player.
  3. Equity mindset: committing to advancing equitable outcomes, and interrogating and avoiding the ways in which the organization’s strategies and work may reinforce systemic inequities.
  4. Authorized voice and power: recognizing that organizational power and voice must be authorized by those impacted by the organization’s work.

Using some fictionalized examples, I thought it might be helpful to explore how purpose-drive board leadership might work. Here’s the first (more to follow in future posts):

Local Nonprofit Serving Persons Experiencing Homelessness

A nonprofit whose specific mission is focused on serving food to persons experiencing homelessness in a particular neighborhood might measure its impact on the number of meals served. A nonprofit with a broader mission might focus on ending hunger in the neighborhood and measure its impact on the declining rates of homelessness as proxy. But this should not diminish the need for and the value of the first nonprofit.

While the first nonprofit’s mission may be more focused on the present, its board should be guided in its decision-making, direction-setting, and leadership on its broader purpose. Why does this nonprofit exist? Why is it supported?

Certainly, the mission is a critical part of its purpose. But if every decision was made by the nonprofit solely to serve as much food as possible to its intended beneficiaries, it’s easy to imagine how off-course the nonprofit might get. Minimally, the board would want to serve its community pursuant to its values, which hopefully would include dignity and respect for those served by the nonprofit, cultural sensitivity, and equitable access. But these values may not be a given, and if not articulated and ingrained in the governance, management, and operations, can easily be ignored.

The board would also want to direct the nonprofit consistent with its vision, the desired future state of the nonprofit. This may encompass service provision to a smaller group of persons in need; facilities that are comfortable, safe, and inspiring for employees, volunteers, beneficiaries, and others; and a community of supporters who are knowledgeable and compassionate.

Additionally, in its decision-making and actions, the board would want to consider the ecosystem in which the nonprofit operates. This may often be a complex and challenging exercise, but it’s easy to see why it matters. Key questions for the board to deliberate may include:

  • How will our decisions and actions impact our beneficiaries beyond their need for food?
  • Could our efforts in increasing our capacity to serve more meals result in other benefits and/or harms to this community?
  • How will our efforts impact the broader community (e.g., the neighborhood residents and businesses, adjacent neighborhoods)?
  • How might our efforts impact legislation or law enforcement affecting our communities?

Nonprofit boards that engage in purpose-driven leadership can provide great value to their organizations even if they don’t have all the answers. Such generative governance from a variety of perspectives brought by a diverse board may be extremely valuable to the executive and staff and strengthen the board-staff relationship.