7 principles of community-centric boards

Written by Vu Le

A while ago, a colleague and I, both haggard executive directors with involuntary eye twitches, were having lunch. Our conversation led us to our boards, and he told me of how his board chair scolded him for the egregious crime of forwarding a funding opportunity to another nonprofit. “He was mad that I helped our ‘competition’ by letting them know of a request for proposals from a foundation. I figured why wouldn’t we share RFPs with one another?”

Fast forward to now, several years and a pandemic later, and unfortunately, I still hear stories like this. Boards of directors are truly some of the biggest stressors in the sector, often more harmful than helpful, as I’ve written about here and here. But it’s partly because we’ve trained boards to think and act in certain ways, ways that over time help to entrench siloing, competitiveness, and survivalism.

Over the past two years, it’s been awesome to see the Community-Centric Fundraising (CCF) movement expand across the sector. Nonprofits are doing amazing things, like lifting up other missions, inviting donors into conversations about race and wealth disparity, dropping archaic practices like recognizing donors by levels of giving, etc. But community-centeredness shouldn’t just be limited to fundraising. Everything would benefit from community-mindedness. For example, it would be great if our hiring practices focused less on getting the best talent for our specific org, and more on developing talent for the entire sector.

In the same way, boards need to evolve to be more focused on what’s best for the community, not simply what’s best to advance specific missions. So, taking cue from the CCF movement and its principles, here are some tentative principles for the Community-Centric Board (CCB).

1.The work of the board must be grounded in racial, economic, and social justice: Boards are often way behind staff in getting trained and engaging in conversations and reflection on these issues. This frequently sets back organizations, as board members are often imbued with formal power that they use to prevent progress from being made. Too often the work of examining systemic racism, white supremacy, privileges, etc., is seen as an afterthought by many board members, or something they reluctantly sign up for. Yes, boards only have so many hours a month, but this is essential.

2.Boards must constantly reflect the communities being served: Our sector is rife with white saviors and other kinds of saviors, and this is especially present on boards. For a board to be effective and to minimize the potential harm it may cause, its members must reflect the community it’s serving in terms of race, gender, income-level, disability, etc. As communities continue to diversify, the board must be constantly alert to ensure it’s still reflective of the people it’s serving.

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About the author

Vu Le

Vu Le (“voo lay”) is a writer, speaker, vegan, Pisces, and the former Executive Director of RVC, a nonprofit in Seattle that promotes social justice by developing leaders of color, strengthening organizations led by communities of color, and fostering collaboration between diverse communities.

Vu’s passion to make the world better, combined with a low score on the Law School Admission Test, drove him into the field of nonprofit work, where he learned that we should take the work seriously, but not ourselves. There’s tons of humor in the nonprofit world, and someone needs to document it. He is going to do that, with the hope that one day, a TV producer will see how cool and interesting our field is and make a show about nonprofit work, featuring attractive actors attending strategic planning meetings and filing 990 tax forms.

Known for his no-BS approach, irreverent sense of humor, and love of unicorns, Vu has been featured in dozens, if not hundreds, of his own blog posts at NonprofitAF.com.