Purpose-Driven Board Leadership

A new way forward for nonprofit boards:
BoardSource’s Call for “Purpose-Driven Board Leadership”

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

In an important article in Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR), Anne Wallestad, offers up a new way of framing the nonprofit board’s role, and a call for what we’ve termed “Purpose-Driven Board Leadership.” With perspectives that are informed by BoardSource’s years of research and work with nonprofit boards and executives, and informed by a wide range of leaders and thinkers in the field of social sector leadership, “Purpose-Driven Board Leadership” centers on four key principles that we believe should drive nonprofit board leadership and thinking:

Principle 1: Purpose before organization

The prioritization of an organization’s purpose, 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 being a respectful and responsible ecosystem player.

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.

Principle 4: Authorized voice and power

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

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

At BoardSource, we believe that a large-scale move toward purpose-driven board leadership would not only address the very real challenges of boards as they currently exist; it would create an upswell of boards and organizations that are deeply connected and interconnected in their service to positive social impact and change in service to community.

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

YouTube Logo

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.