Purpose-Driven Board Leadership

What is Purpose-Driven Leadership?

With perspectives that are informed by BoardSource’s years of work with nonprofit boards and executives, and by a wide range of researchers and thinkers in the field of social sector leadership, we recommend a shift toward a new way forward for nonprofit boards. In an important article in Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR), BoardSource  introduced a new way of framing the nonprofit board’s role and issued a call for what we’ve termed “Purpose-Driven Board Leadership.” This form of leadership prioritizes purpose first-and-foremost, and offers a set of principles that can drive nonprofit board leadership and thinking.

The Importance of Purpose-Driven Leadership for Nonprofit Boards

At BoardSource, we believe it is time for real change in the way that board’s understand and embody their leadership. 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. This understanding has led us to think deeply about why that is and what it would take to change.

Boards represent and govern organizations on behalf of the communities they serve. Who is on the board can drastically change the answers to how the board operates and what role the board plays.

The Four Principles of Purpose-Driven Board Leadership

We are recommending that boards embrace the following four principles to drive leadership and thinking with a purpose-first mentality:

Principle 1: Purpose Before Organization

The prioritization of an organization’s purpose, and the problems it is trying to solve, versus the organization itself.

Principle 2: Respect for Ecosystem

An acknowledgment that an organization’s actions can positively or negatively impact its surrounding ecosystem, and a commitment to making choices that benefit, not just our organizations, but the entire ecosystem, and all of its players.

Principle 3: Equity Mindset

A commitment to advancing equitable outcomes, and interrogating and avoiding the ways in which the organization’s strategies and work may reinforce systemic inequities, and the willingness to dismantle any barriers that may have been created by organizational decisions in the past.

Principle 4: Authorized Voice and Power

The recognition that organizational power and voice must be informed and authorized by those impacted by the organization’s work.

How to Be a Purpose-Driven Leader

Purpose-driven board leadership makes explicit what is different about social sector governance (as opposed to corporate governance), as well as how traditional ways of thinking about nonprofit governance fail to acknowledge the unique charge of social sector organizations and the boards that lead them. This is more of a shift in thinking and orientation to the board’s role rather than a new model or board structure; a way of being versus a structure or set of technical practices.

Begin Your Board’s Transformation

At BoardSource, we believe that a large-scale move toward purpose-driven board leadership would address the very real challenges of boards as they currently exist; it would create an upswell of boards and organizations that are interconnected in their service to positive social impact and the communities they serve.

Will your board join us?

Read the Article in Stanford Social Innovation Review

Start a Conversation with Your Board

A Growing Conversation about Purpose-Driven Board Leadership

Reimagining Boards for High Impact

Reimagining Boards for High Impact 

Marty Kooistra and Jane Wei-Skillern, PhD

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Webinar: Reimagining Boards for High Impact 

Marty Kooistra, Jane Wei-Skillern, PhD, Andy Davis

Eight Signs Your Board Might Be Dysfunctional

Kevin Bolduc & Phil Buchanan, The Center for Effective Philanthropy

Moving From Voice to Power

Melinda Tuan, managing director of Fund for Shared Insight

Purpose-Driven Leadership – Lessons from GEO’s Racial Equity Journey

Marcus Walton, president and CEO of Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO)

Purpose-Driven Board Leadership, Legally Speaking

Gene Takagi, principal of NEO Law Group and BoardSource board member

Re-Purposing Foundation Boards

Phil Buchanan, president of The Center for Effective Philanthropy

Billy Shore Responds to Purpose-Driven Board Leadership Framework

Billy Shore, founder and executive chair of Share our Strength

Building the Boards We Need

Rick Moyers, BoardSource board member, and independent consultant

Webinar: Purpose-Driven Board Leadership: Reconceiving Foundation Governance

Anne Wallestad, Phil Buchanan, Kofi Appenteng, Jim Canales

Webinar: The Four Principles of Purpose-Driven Board Leadership

Anne Wallestad, Jim Taylor, Andy Davis, Takita Battle


BoardSource thanks the many partners and colleagues whose input, thinking, and past work helped shape our thinking and make this article possible. This includes, but is not limited to, Jane Wei-Skillern’s work on Network Leadership and Networked Organizations, Forces for Good authors Heather McLeod Grant and Leslie Crutchfield, principles of Collective Impact as initiated by FSG Impact, the TCC Group’s work on Ecosystem Thinking and Relational Capacity, the Community-Engagement GovernanceTM Model and Engagement Governance Project, David Renz’s work on Reframing Governance, Fund for Shared Insight’s Listen4Good initiative, and many others.

Special thanks to the many colleagues and friends who provided direct input and feedback on this thinking and article as it took shape. This includes BoardSource staff and board colleagues Jim Taylor, Andrew Davis, Judy Reckelhoff, Jenifer Holland, Cathy Trower, Julia Wilson, Sherece West-Scantlebury, Gene Takagi, and Rick Moyers, as well as many colleagues in social sector leadership including (in alphabetical order) Kofi Appenteng, Phil Buchanan, Dan Cardinali, Chris Cardona, Monisha Kapila, Micah Parzen, Lindsay Louie, and others.