Board Leadership: If I were the king of the forest…

November 16, 2019

I had the pleasure of meeting Lonnie Bunch through the late great Clement Price when I was working at the Dodge Foundation, and I think the country and the world is lucky to have Lonnie at the helm of the world’s largest museum, education, and research complex.  The fact that it is still such a big deal for a black man to have that job in 2019 has me musing on the forces that make that so.

A moment comes to mind from the first workshop of the Dodge Board Leadership series for 2019-20, which I facilitated last month.  We were examining the “Seven Pillars of High Performance,” as defined by the Leap Ambassador Community, and talking about the first and “pre-eminent” pillar: Leadership.

I told the group of nonprofit leaders in the room that the creators of the seven-pillar framework had chosen two adjectives to modify the noun leadership in their naming of the first pillar. Then I asked what they thought those adjectives were.  Effective? Strong? Consistent? Trusted? Experienced?  Bold?

No.  The first pillar is identified as Courageous, Adaptive Board and Staff Leadership.  I asked the participants what that looked like to them, and I would ask you the readers of this blog post now to pause over the same questions.  In your experience, what kind of leadership would deserve to be called courageous? What do you picture when you think of leaders being especially or conspicuously adaptive?

After hearing responses from those in the room, I shared a list of descriptive statements about leadership made by the Leap Ambassadors, including, “In high-performance organizations, executives and boards cultivate diversity and inclusion at every level of the organization.”

Then came a moment I’ve been thinking about since.  I said, “You know, as recently as ten years ago, it would have been possible for white-led organizations to ignore that statement.  But I don’t think it’s possible anymore.”  There was a moment of silence, then enthusiastic finger-snaps from two young women of color in the training room.

They may have been snapping for the idea rather than the reality of change in the social sector, the Smithsonian notwithstanding.  According to the Building Movement Project’s 2017 report, “Race to Lead: Confronting the Racial Leadership Gap,” the percentage of people of color in executive director/CEO roles has remained under 20% for the last 15 years.  The report described significant investment in training programs in order to create a pipeline of potential leaders of color.  But it also noted that those trained people are out there and want the jobs; indeed the percentage of people of color who desired nonprofit leadership positions was higher than that of whites.  But they aren’t getting hired.  The report went on, “In other words, while many investments … focus on training and other capacity building for people of color, the real need for capacity building is with the people who hire for executive leadership positions.”

The Building Movement report ended with three recommendations, including: field organizations, like funders and associations (and one might add capacity builders …) can incentivize new norms, set standards, and identify progress indicators for racial equity in the sector.

This brings us back to the idea of courageous leadership and efforts like the Dodge Board Leadership series.  The vast majority of nonprofit organizations and boards I work with, including in this series, are led by white people, and they are all trying to figure out what the acronym DEI – diversity, equity, inclusion – means to them.  They generally are good, dedicated, community-minded, mission-driven people.  But their organizations are slow to change, and maybe framing that change as taking courage is exactly right:

  • It takes courage to face unconscious bias;
  • It takes courage to acknowledge that you don’t need racists to perpetuate systems that foster and maintain racial inequality;
  • It takes courage to challenge and change systems that benefit you and people who look like you.

As Robin DiAngelo writes at the end of White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, “Interrupting racism takes courage and intentionality; the interruption is by definition not passive or complacent … we must never consider ourselves finished with our learning … It is a messy, lifelong process, but … (it) is also deeply compelling and transformative.”

There’s where the Dodge Foundation comes in, and since I’m no longer there I feel I can praise them out loud for their efforts.  The Foundation has elevated the issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion in its strategic plan. Their mission and vision statements refer to “an equitable New Jersey” as the goal they are planning backwards from. They describe “a priority focus on elevating the voices and power of those communities that have been historically and systematically excluded from investment and opportunity.”  The Board Leadership Series has added two core workshops in “Creating a Culture of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.”

In short, in philanthropy, a field that many feel does more to uphold than disrupt the status quo, Dodge is leading.  Maybe they can help us all learn as the lion did in The Wizard of Oz, that we had the courage all along.

DG_HeadshotDavid Grant is the former President and CEO of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.
He is the author of The Social Profit Handbook: The Essential Guide to Setting Goals,
Assessing Outcomes, and Achieving Success for Mission-Driven Organizations (2015)