I remember my first nonprofit board of directors (BOD) meeting like it was yesterday—such is the power of trauma to send its shock waves across decades. I was 28, newly arrived with my young family in Hartford, Connecticut, to take the reins of a brand-new food organization. The board members, most of whom I had not yet met, held the meeting over lunch at Aqui Me Quedo, a local Puerto Rican restaurant, to welcome me to town and share an overview of our goals. Some pleasant words came my way, and a paper agenda was circulated, but as soon as the waiter was done taking our orders the knives came out.

Since the mind can cover ugly details in gentle clouds of forgetfulness, the precise spark that ignited the firefight is now lost to me. Suffice it to say that one board faction of two or three people had done something that another faction didn’t like. Rather than express their objections in a professional fashion, a nasty confrontation ensued that brought water glasses slamming to the table and insults lobbed like mortar shells across the room. Jaws jutted out and teeth were clenched—a testament to the pent-up anger seething among the group. Before I had a chance to enjoy my first ever plate of rice and beans, the meeting was adjourned without a motion, a second, or a recorded vote.

Besides wondering if it was too early for me to resign my position, this “meeting” set the stage for a career awash in the world of nonprofit organizations. They would be captained by boards of wildly varying competencies and motivations. Though I often chafed at both their actions and inactions, these boards became my prevailing reality, sine qua non, and classroom where the questions of the day were always, “Why are we here?” and “How can we do this differently?”

There are 1.8 million nonprofit organizations in the United States, according to Independent Sector (Health of the U.S. Nonprofit Sector 2022 (independentsector.org). With an average of 15 board seats per organization, that means there could be approximately 23 million people who serve on boards, not accounting for the enthusiasts among us who serve on two or more boards. In spite of their nonprofit designation, these organizations are not insignificant economic engines. Collectively, nonprofits make up 5.6 percent of U.S. gross domestic product, spend almost $2.5 trillion, and generate over $2.6 trillion in revenues annually.

But no one expects nonprofits to compete in the economic arena with for-profit corporations or government spending. In fact, the real purpose of nonprofits is to compete in the moral arena, which, given the competition with many corporate execs and politicians, isn’t particularly hard. “If you imagine society as a three-legged stool,” offers Mike Burns, a Connecticut-based consultant with over 45 years of nonprofit experience, “with the legs being the corporate, government, and the nonprofit/NGO sectors, it’s the nonprofit leg that carries most of society’s moral weight and simply cares the most about people.”

Indeed, depending on your politics and where you situate yourself along a pro- to anti-capitalist spectrum, corporations may/may not give a hoot about people (B corporations and the growing emphasis on environmental, social, and governance investing (E.S.G.) at least suggest that corporations’ have obligations beyond their shareholders). Similarly, government can be cynically viewed as nothing more than a siloed collection of bureaucratic functions often performed with little creativity, grace, efficiency, or sufficient funding.

When you think about the wobbly societal stool this way, you realize that all those nonprofits out there are much more than the sum of their individual services, programs, and advocacy efforts. The very future of the country with respect to equity, sustainability, and justice are at stake. In other words, you’re not just running a daycare center, a symphony orchestra, or a food bank, you’re also one of millions of oarsmen aboard a giant ship, using a moral conscience as your compass, to take the world and its people to a better place. In light of the immensity of that task, that nonprofit leg and the boards that steer those organizations better be hewn from the mightiest oak in the forest.

What are some of the impediments to nonprofits taking on this heroic effort? I’ll continue with my boats and oars metaphor to answer part of that question. In one disastrous attempt at board development and team building in Hartford, I organized a session for my board members to crew a rowing scull on the Connecticut River. With eight people rowing, one steering and shouting “pull,” and professional rowing coaches escorting us in a motorboat, we made it downriver about half-a-mile without incident. But as we attempted to turn this long, skinny boat upriver, the communication and coordination required to synchronize our oar sweeps proved our undoing. With crossed and splashing oars, erratic steering, and laughs turning to curses, we battled our way back to shore, soaking wet and demoralized. As we debriefed over beers at a nearby tavern, the power of the metaphor became readily apparent.

Like the direction of our rowing, the purpose of our organization was not fully understood or embraced by all board members. Some felt—often based on prior assumptions and personal preferences—that meeting farmers’ needs was our purpose while others thought the food security of the city’s residents came first. Another source of confusion was the belief that serving the organization came before serving its purpose. This led to placing undue emphasis, for instance, on fundraising while others assumed that they were there to support the executive director’s vision. Fundraising was indeed important, but the latent financial power of the board was not, say in grant writing—that took me 20 years to master—it was in their strength as a network with its large multiples of community connections. Through those contacts they could identify funding opportunities as well as needs and resources while also raising the profile of the organization. Again, their job was to support our purpose, not to be overly attentive to the organization.

With respect to vision, I will say that I have worked for or served on 15 nonprofit boards over my career, and the most successful ones, which also usually means the most successful nonprofits, are those that fully embrace their vision. The board and the staff share it; they own it and feel it in a visceral way. When the vision needs to be modified, they do it together. As I have experienced on several occasions, when the vision is the product of only the CEO and not successfully shared with the board, trouble ensues. What follows is a weak board, ambivalence over purpose, and a loss of accountability to the community. In one case, I accidentally found myself serving (fortunately for only one meeting) on a fake board that was the product of a charismatic leader who needed a “board” to give them cover for their questionable activities. Beware of the Siren’s song of some charismatic leaders. Look for substance (e.g., a strong organization and board, a shared and realistic purpose) over style. For more ideas see: The Four Principles of Purpose-Driven Board Leadership (ssir.org).

Besides clarity about board roles and the purpose of an organization, nonprofit BODs must address diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). In one way, shape, or form, a nonprofit’s constituents must be at the table (animal organizations are exempt from this requirement). The legitimacy of your mission will be undermined without that connection to the people and causes you serve; your board’s effectiveness as a network will be diminished if it does not reflect your community’s racial, ethnic, and economic profile. Granted, what constitutes diversity and who your constituents are will vary from place to place and sector to sector (on a humorous sidenote, in pre-woke 1980s Hartford, barely clinging to its label of “insurance capital of the world,” nonprofit board diversity meant having one person from Aetna, one from Travelers, and one from CIGNA!).

Based on a Board Source survey of 800 charities, there’s a lot of DEI work to do. Half (49 percent) of all chief executives said that they did not have the right board members to “establish trust with the communities they serve.” Only a third of boards (32 percent) place a high priority on “knowledge of the community served,” and even fewer (28 percent) place a high priority on “membership within the community served.” Furthermore, 78 percent of all nonprofit board members are white, and 19 percent of boards are all white. For some good tips on building diversity check out Diversity on Nonprofit Boards | National Council of Nonprofits.

But there is a fly in the ointment that is tipping the scales of many organizations out of balance. I’ll call it the curse of the single lens which, at the moment, happens to be DEI. By the single lens, I mean the assumption that all the issues and problems facing an organization, in this case nonprofits, can be reduced to one topic, one analysis, one cause, in other words, one lens. For instance, I’ve heard it said many times that if you fix an organization’s DEI problems, the resolution of all its other issues will follow, a notion that strains my credulity. Structure, fundraising, poor leadership and management, misunderstood roles and purposes, and other points I have delineated above require as much attention as DEI. At the very least, any assessment of a nonprofit’s effectiveness must be done through a comprehensive, systemic lens, not a single lens.

Based on an internal memo I received, one foundation that was poised to spend millions of dollars on pandemic-induced food insecurity in its region came perilously close to meltdown when some of its staff and board were seized by a paroxysm of white privilege guilt and a gnarly DEI debate. Funds were eventually disbursed but not without a substantial amount of bloodletting.

Given that foundations are often the source of funding for many nonprofits seeking outside technical expertise and training, there appears to be a trend of the DEI tail wagging the foundation dog. One community foundation I have knowledge of, that like many community foundations, supports a regional network of nonprofit oriented trainers and technical assistance providers, has focused nearly exclusively on DEI consulting. As a result, some consultants who offer a more comprehensive range of services dropped out of the network. Reflecting on his more recent experience with such foundations, Mike Burns says, “If foundations believe DEI is an answer to organizations that don’t adequately reflect their communities, then they must also work to [fund improvements in] their organizational structure and governance. Otherwise, nonprofits are going to fall grossly out of balance.”

One more point that I want to make concerns the question of nonprofit board responsibility and roles. As one executive director told me, “All I want is for the board to do its job and not meddle in the day-to-day business of management!” But how do they know what their “job” is, and more importantly, how do they become responsible and stay within their board member lanes? It starts with a generative discussion among board and staff about their theory of change and core values. This means being clear about what the bigger social problem is that they’re addressing and what kind of solution they’re looking for. Too often, boards and the organizations they lead don’t think about where they fit into the bigger universe; they see their role as ensuring that services are delivered. A food bank, for instance, that mitigates hunger by distributing food but doesn’t devote time and resources to addressing the underlying causes (e.g., poverty) probably hasn’t spent much time developing a theory of change.

When a consensus is arrived at—a process that is likely to take some work and possibly outside assistance—the board can then consider a range of interventions, including existing ones, and what is likely to happen as a result of each intervention. This will enable them to evaluate the organization’s performance in relation to its theory of change. In Mike Burns’ opinion, “training board members in this manner will keep them focused on what matters most to the organization.” (For more tips from Mike Burns on how to improve nonprofit boards of directors, see 3 Ways To Resolve Board Participation Challenges – NonProfit PRO)

Two big “aha” moments have informed my life’s work in the food movement and among its nonprofits and boards. The first is the realization that the positive impact of those organizations and the dozens of partner groups aligned with them have been huge—equivalent, perhaps, to climbing several Mt. Everests. We did that third leg of the stool proud, cared for people, the earth and its creatures, and asserted a moral authority when the other two legs were splintering and cracking. Sure, at times I felt like the guy with the shovel and the bucket at the end of the circus animal parade, asking myself why I was forming yet another nonprofit to clean up someone else’s shit. But as time passed, the solutions we deployed have ripped plates from the system’s armor that will yield bold and beneficial new breakthroughs over time.

The second realization stems from a nagging question: Why must we rely on this mishmash of millions of nonprofits, volunteers, and often underpaid staff to put Humpty Dumpty back together? While the nonprofit sector at times seems like a terrible idea, the alternatives—and you can imagine what they might be—are probably far worse. The endless hours required for the care and feeding of numerous boards, the petty squabbles, blind ignorance, never enough money, and raging egos left their mark on my sanity and torn asunder more than one relationship. “There must be a better way!” was the refrain that reverberated inside my head at the end of yet another stressful board meeting.

But against this gloom I don’t regret my persistence nor the extraordinary people—board members, staff, and community members—that I had the good fortune to work with. I look with hope to the young, brave hearts now forging new paths with innovations in the nonprofit and for-profit worlds, sometimes cultivating extraordinary “hybrids” between the two. There is no reason we have to slavishly serve the standard nonprofit model forever. Reinvention and reform should be our mantras, and our clearly articulated and shared purpose our North star. But until that glorious time arrives when we finally get it right, we owe it to ourselves, our boards, and our constituents to be the best nonprofit organization we can be.