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May 18, 2022
 
Community Focus Paves Way for Nonprofit Boards to Do More
Vu Le
Vu Le

March 13, 2022 — By thinking about what’s best for the community instead of only what’s best for their organization, nonprofit boards can do more to foster greater inclusiveness and lasting change, in addition to ensuring their organization’s success, Massachusetts nonprofits were told last week.

“If we’re going to reimagine boards, we have to unlearn certain things. We need to get boards out of the mindset that our jobs are just to protect the organization,” Vu Le, a blogger and author of NonprofitAF.com, told 150 people attending a virtual meeting on reimagining boards, sponsored by the Cambridge Nonprofit Coalition and the Cambridge Volunteer Clearinghouse.

“I would like boards to expand their thinking of their role as being more expansive, about being liaisons to other nonprofits, and to think about the larger sector, not just about the survival of their own organization.”

Nonprofit boards by their nature are highly risk averse, which, according to Le, can inhibit progress. Given that nonprofit boards view themselves as responsible primarily for the organization’s financial well being and overall governance, efforts to change boards typically result in little or no change, according to Le.

He noted that nonprofits “have a fear that if we change things too much, we may lose donors,” adding, :We assume that if we let go of board members, they and their networks will stop supporting us. We’re forgetting that some of these assumptions are not accurate.

“The presence of some of these board members may be preventing other donors from giving. If we stand with our values, we may lose some people, but there may be some other people who see that what we stand up for is right.”

Le said rethinking the role of nonprofit boards starts with addressing root causes of social issues, which he traces to issues of race and white supremacy:

“We have not been trained to talk about these things. We are terrified to talk about race and about white supremacy. The entire reason our sector exists is to address the problems caused by white supremacy and patriarchal systems,” he said. “We don’t walk to talk about these things, so we do very surface level things, like how do we diversity our board?”

The prevailing nonprofit board model is itself the problem, according to Le. Often composed of “well meaning individuals who see less than one percent of the work,” many board members, he said, often don’t reflect the community served the by the nonprofit. Yet, “We tell these people, you have vast power to make decisions on behalf of the organization.”

That approach, he said, leads nonprofits to internalize the notion that donors by virtue of their wealth are expert in the nonprofit sector, which forces nonprofits to cater to them.

This, he said, leads to an “attitude of gratitude" – the idea that nonprofits should be grateful for any amount of money “when so much of the wealth of the country has been built on slavery, stolen indigenous land, worker exploitation, environmental degradation, and tax avoidance.”

Nonprofit boards can become more community centered by recognizing the roots of injustice and then working toward a greater sense of inclusion, Le said. Along the way, people will make mistakes about racism, but adopting an approach of accepting it and making changes as needed will help. One training, for example, is not enough.

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