Reimagining Boards for High Impact

Reimagining Boards for High Impact Through Networks

Fulfilling purpose through networks centered on community and connected by mission, relationships, and trust.

This brief is authored by network leadership experts Marty Kooistra and Jane Wei-Skillern, PhD and not by BoardSource. The following interviews and recommendations are informed by BoardSource’s work on Purpose-Driven Board Leadership and conducted, with permission, by the authors. This is not an official BoardSource resource.

Common Stumbling Blocks

Nonprofit organizations rely heavily on their relevance, both perceived and real, to fuel their resource generation efforts. Social impact organizations are always faced with the perennial challenge of achieving an ambitious mission with severely limited resources and capacities. A focus on funding organizational-level issues is both logical and commonplace among board leaders, yet this focus can also be limiting.

Our mainstream nonprofit governance model relies on a board of directors or trustees, to create connections and opportunities for the nonprofit, as well as provide strategic direction, create the resource engine capability, and oversee management. Engagement with board members’ communities and intentionally investing in relationships to further share a nonprofit mission are important ways to create opportunities for the organization.

The degree to which boards are deeply engaged varies widely depending on several factors, such as: age, size, mission, and executive leadership of the organization. Often the pressures and mechanisms of raising resources dominate attention and limit the line of sight to organizational sustainability or, worse, survival.

Network Impact

What if leaders could grow their impact without growing the size of their organizations? Could the counterintuitive approach of broadening one’s focus and looking externally actually be a path to greater impact?

BoardSource’s Purpose-Driven Board Leadership  is a call to boards of directors to ensure that an “internal” orientation does not dominate their leadership. It implores us to be aware of and equitably engage in the ecosystem that could help bolster the organization by leaning into network impact. The principles of network leadership, formed over the past two decades by Dr. Jane Wei-Skillern’s research, dovetail with the principles of purpose-driven boards. Collectively, Wallestad and Wei-Skillern’s research strongly suggests that it is indeed possible to scale impact, not through organizational growth but through building and strengthening a range of networks.

Drawing on interviews with current nonprofit leaders and grounded in decades of research and experience working with nonprofits seeking to grow their impact, this paper offers six primary areas where boards can focus their energy to strengthen community relationships and dramatically increase their impact.

The six primary areas include:

1. Allocate Board Time to Mission-Critical Activities

2. Build Community Voices into the Board

3. Ground Board Decision-Making in Community Wisdom

4. Deepen Board-Staff Connections

5. Bring Network Aspirations to the Ecosystem

6. Reframe Accountability and Success

We offer this resource as a tool for boards and executive leaders as a starting point to generate introspective conversations and create a roadmap for building networks for social change.

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101 Resource | Last Updated December 6, 2022