Design Choices: Inherited Does Not Mean Inevitable*
Nonprofit and foundation leaders had embarked on their race equity journeys before racism and COVID-19 had been dubbed “America’s two deadly viruses,” however, events in the first half of 2020 have accelerated those research and reflection efforts. It is a new world, one characterized by instability and disruption highlighting the need for social sector action and adaptive leadership.
Where government is incompetent, social sector leaders step in to fill a vacuum. With a host of challenges to solve such as food insecurity, climate change, gender-based violence, poverty, and limited access to mental and physical healthcare, to name a few, the demands on the social sector are consistently growing — both in volume and in nature. If these issues are worth addressing at all, they must be addressed in a manner that centers racial equity. Drawing from the wisdom of movement-builders, it is precisely during times of instability (e.g. acute “shocks” and incremental “slides”) that shifts in the direction of ecological resilience and social equity can occur. More specifically, these can be times when communities can create new institutions that better respond to the shocks and slides than the dominant systems can.
This need not mean that existing institutions become altogether extinct; however, it most certainly underscores the transformational nature of the change that is needed. For organizational leaders, this may merit a complete sea change. Adaptive leadership mobilizes work that “hold[s] people through a sustained period of disequilibrium during which they identify what cultural DNA to conserve and discard, and invent or discover the new cultural DNA that will enable them to thrive anew.” The current environment throws these choices into stark relief, as we are stuck in a mold that does not suit the complexities of the present. Binary thinking presupposes an either/or scenario with finite possibilities. For instance, we can either have board members who are able to write six figure checks, or we can have board members who are racially diverse. It’s a false choice. Rethinking organizations and the connections between the people who make up organizations is a critical step to creating a new future that works for all and not the privileged few.
In Decolonizing Wealth: Indigenous Wisdom to Heal Divides and Restore Balance, Edgar Villanueva writes, “Colonial, white supremacist organizational practices seem inevitable…and they still govern the great majority of our institutions, but they were design choices. This means that other choices are available, even when they seem far-fetched. We know what organizations look like, feel like, and function like when they are inspired by the colonizers’ principles of separation, competition, and exploitation. How would organizations’ design choices be different if they were based on principles like integration and interdependence, reciprocity and relationship?” Villanueva offers a challenge to philanthropy, yet the challenge extends to the social sector writ large. How can we shift power and dislodge the default operating system of white supremacy culture? How can organizational leaders reimagine opportunities for shared human endeavor that center mutuality, both/and thinking, and distributed leadership?
It all comes down to power, but what is power, exactly? Rashad Robinson, executive director at Color of Change, defines power as the ability to change the rules. Organizationally, rules are generally set by the designated “leaders,” whether executive leadership or board members. How does a board function differently: When power is distributed? When there is collective work and responsibility in directing the organization’s path? When voices from the “unusual suspects” are centered in the discourse about what is “best” for the community?
Tough Times, Transformational Choices
Board and staff leaders have always had the power to interrogate and upend the default operating system of white supremacy; however, it is well-documented that this power hasn’t been acted upon. Boardroom design choices are expressed in what happens in governing spaces (e.g. how meetings are run and how leadership is defined) and which individual leaders are invited to participate in governing (e.g. board membership in addition to all stakeholder relationships). Research data have consistently demonstrated that nonprofit boards are overwhelmingly white.   “Board service is a form of civic participation through which citizen volunteers exercise a voice in the use of private resources for the public good. In theory, serving on a board should be among the most egalitarian and accessible forms of public service,”  that is not happening in practice and hasn’t for some time. This is both unjust and ineffective.
If we know that diverse teams make better decisions  and that people of color are denied positions they’re qualified for  and that board recruitment processes are often largely focused on those within existing members’ networks  and among white Americans, 91% of their social networks are also white , well — there is a significant opportunity to shake things up. Now is the time to face the consequences of people of color being disproportionately excluded from board service and to take a liberated approach to governance. Leadership teams — including boards — of all kinds can be more diverse and inclusive and the opportunity to achieve this is within reach. The causes that nonprofits were formed to address deserve this level of investment and doing so carries with it a tremendous amount of promise.
If ever there was a time for change, it is now. As a result of the global pandemic, ninety percent of organizations report facing revenue loss and nearly half of nonprofit leaders report making reductions in staff and services . And while furloughs and layoffs at the staff level are widespread, open board positions are far less market-sensitive and nonprofit leaders continue to recruit for those roles. Nonprofit organizations in crisis need connected, attentive board leadership now more than ever. The question is, do we have the courage and the foresight to do things differently?
The world is shaken up right now in a very fundamental way. What kind of leadership opportunities has the pandemic crisis revealed to you? What kinds of assumptions, relational patterns, and objectives will you choose to embrace as you reflect on your organization’s DNA and your power to change the rules?
A travel aficionado, Makiyah Moody would rather live in Wakanda and is committed to a world where Black lives matter. She co-creates solutions with nonprofits and foundations in her current role at La Piana Consulting.
Jenifer Gager Holland believes that each person’s unique traits are their superpowers and she daily aspires to eat as much spicy food as possible, take anti-racist action, and pass the mic. Most recently with BoardSource, Jenifer is currently principal at JG Consulting.
*The authors’ thoughts are their own.