Planning for the Future of Nonprofit Boards: An Interview with Anne Wallestad

In this interview, Anne Wallestad, President & CEO of BoardSource, talks with us about the organization’s strategic direction, what it is learning, and its new initiatives to strengthen and support nonprofit leaders.

Anne Wallestad has served as President & CEO of BoardSource since 2013. BoardSource is a nonprofit that works globally to inspire and support excellence in nonprofit governance and board and staff leadership. In this interview, she speaks with Makiyah Moody, Senior Consultant at La Piana Consulting, about the organization’s growth, change, and new leadership initiatives.

BoardSource recently developed a new strategic framework which resulted in some significant changes to its approach. Can you share some of the highlights and anticipated outcomes? 

Absolutely. And I would say that there are highlights both in terms of the actual plan, and also how the process differed from previous planning processes. The board and staff leadership were intent on the result of the planning process to be a framework for prioritization and decision-making rather than an elaborate and inflexible plan. Our framework is a two-page document that outlines what’s most important for BoardSource to do. We did not want to create a laundry list of tasks, but to cultivate a shared understanding of what is most important and adjust tactics and plans as the work progresses.

This framework — and its organization around our vision, mission, goals, and strategic imperatives — is enabling us to be much more focused. As a part of the planning process, we determined that it was absolutely essential for us to make much deeper investments in research, both in terms of sector-wide trends in board and staff leadership and through deep, evaluation-driven board development projects. We also identified the continued need to draw attention to critical issues within the sector where strong board leadership is needed. This was the leadership that the sector needed from us, and we understood that it wouldn’t happen without intentionality, focus, and a willingness to change.

You mentioned the importance of addressing critical issues where board leadership is needed. What’s an example of that?

A great example is the Stand for Your Mission campaign, which was initiated in partnership with the Alliance for Justice, the Campion Foundation, the Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers, the National Council of Nonprofits, and the Knight Foundation. The campaign is challenging board members to stand up for their missions by becoming strong advocates and ambassadors for their organizations. As a social sector we are underutilizing advocacy as a lever for change. We are not involved enough in decision-making that impacts our organizations and the communities that we serve, and all too often that means that our organizations are left to pick up the pieces and fill the gap.

Board members can make a huge difference by actively engaging in their organization’s advocacy efforts and ensuring that decision-makers understand the impact of their policies on real people and issues. Our partners told us that — unfortunately — there was the perception amongst board members that advocacy wasn’t a part of their role, and that BoardSource wasn’t being vocal enough in dispelling that misconception. And BoardSource’s own research reinforced that board members were not actively engaging as advocates. We understood that this was a tremendous opportunity for us as a sector to unlock new impact: imagine how differently things would look if organizations and boards were really standing up for their missions!

Through the campaign, we are helping to build a new expectation among boards that advocacy is a critical board responsibility, and creating in-roads to board-level conversation about why it matters. While there’s still much more work to be done, we know that the campaign has helped thousands of boards start a conversation in their board room and plant the seeds for change.

Another example of a critical sector-wide issue is around strategic alliances and restructuring. We think there’s a tremendous opportunity for nonprofit organizations to bring more intentionality and focus to opportunities to partner with each other. We are in the planning stages for an effort to educate boards about that opportunity, which La Piana and several other experts in the field have been a part of.

Each year BoardSource publishes a report called Leading with Intent that focuses on governance and board leadership trends across the sector. How does this research influence BoardSource’s work?

Leading with Intent helps us map trends across the sector and points to places where we face big challenges or potential opportunities as a sector. Stand for Your Mission is a great example of that. Leading with Intent showed us that we were missing a huge opportunity for board engagement in advocacy, and we saw that as a call to action for BoardSource to create change.

Over time, we are also able to use Leading with Intent as a way to hold ourselves — and the sector — accountable on the places that we know that change is needed. For example, on the critical issue of board diversity. In the more than 20 years that BoardSource has been tracking and benchmarking changes in board composition and diversity, we have made minimal progress. Boards are still overwhelmingly white, and a full 25% of boards don’t include a single board member of color. That’s a huge problem, and one that we need to take incredibly seriously as a social sector.

What else can you share with us about the strategic planning process?

As a part of the strategic planning process, we made more explicit the absolutely central role that the partnership between the board and the executive director or chief executive officer plays in the organization, and how critical the executive is in building that strong partnership. We identified that there’s a lot more that we can and should be doing to support executives as they work to strengthen that partnership. An example of the types of new programming that BoardSource will be creating to meet this need is a new three-day retreat program exclusively for executives looking to invest in strengthening their CEO and board partnership, which we will be hosting for the first time this December. We will discuss the challenges executives face in their roles and explore how they can be change agents in an organization.

With your broad view of the sector and your work with nonprofits across the country, what trends do you think will reshape the social sector in the next three to five years?

The pace of change has accelerated so rapidly that the way that boards think and work together has to change to stay current and relevant. It’s simply not possible to approach an organization’s work or strategy with the expectation that things will stay the same. They won’t. Boards and senior leaders need to be constantly asking themselves: “What’s changed?” “What do we think might change?” “What will that mean for the way that we do our work?” Strategic planning is no longer something that you do every three to five years; it’s something that you do on an ongoing basis. And that’s a radically different proposition for boards. It requires flexibility, agility, and a constant focus on what’s next.

Of course, in many ways, that’s not new. It’s what we have always talked about as the role of boards in strategy — long-range thinking that looks around corners for new opportunities and realities. What’s different, in my opinion, is that the pace of change has sped up enough that more and more organizations and their boards are at risk of falling behind — quickly. And it will be harder and harder for them to catch up. It will take a real shift in the way that boards and senior leaders are working and thinking together to ensure that organizations stay relevant and resilient. And that’s exactly why the work that we do at BoardSource, La Piana, and so many other organizations that are committed to strengthening and supporting nonprofit leaders is so important!

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