5 Social Impact Leadership Lessons I Learned as Board Chair
How vision, mission-focus, mentorship, and collaborative decision-making create social impact.
Philanthropy is undergoing a series of transformational changes. Exponential technologies are revolutionizing how people give their time and money, how goals are set for social impact, how service and delivery are organized, and how people share and connect with others in their community in the digital age.
Everyone has a role to play in leading philanthropic organizations through this transition. Still, the lion’s share of responsibility for a successful philanthropic transformation rests on the shoulders of board leaders who act as stewards with a fiduciary duty to charitable organizations. Boards are tasked with creating a vision for the future, and this requires thinking in new ways — because even with the right data and the best of intentions, the solutions to major social problems remain elusive.
Defining social impact leadership and its role in nonprofits
Social impact leadership is a blend of entrepreneurial skills combined with strategy and leadership, management, and innovation to create social, environmental, and economic value that advances equity and creates positive change in communities and worldwide. Exchanging working knowledge about board director roles and governance best practices is a fundamental part of preparing for the future of philanthropy.
Social impact organizations need an effective leadership team to communicate and keep up with the technology-driven changes happening all around us. The board of directors is responsible for providing this leadership know-how. With technical knowledge and experience, they apply and execute strategies, manage change, and inspire others to join in advancing the mission.
Strong social impact leaders are capable of imagining a future that is very different from the present. They also understand how drivers of change from the past will blend to create unexpected outcomes. This is the type of thought leadership you can count on to move the mission forward and steer the organization through all kinds of weather. While working to establish the organization’s identity and direction, they also ensure that it has the necessary resources, and provide oversight and attention on issues of strategic importance. They do not let their fear of the future or fear of being judged cloud their decision making or change their behavior.
By sharing knowledge and experiences, social impact leaders can help to sustain and create strong boards and communities. With a growing need to develop the next generation of nonprofit leaders, I spent some time reflecting on my experiences over the past few years. I arrived at five lessons I learned in nonprofit board service that can help others find and create opportunities on their social impact journey.
Social impact is paved with good intentions and is tough to navigate
I work in social innovation with groups collaborating to address complex social issues ranging from child poverty, health and well-being, education, decent work, and economic growth, and partnerships to enhance global cooperation for sustainable development. I serve as the board chair of a nonprofit headquartered in Silicon Valley — the birthplace of America’s innovative technology companies. Given the organization’s location, it seems like partnerships should be easy to generate. That might be true compared to other places across the country or world, but — you still have to know how to approach private businesses and potential partners.
Even with wildly powerful tools like Google search, networking, and building innovative social partnerships is not as obvious as you may think. You need to develop strategies and have a place to begin, or you will end up exerting hours into fruitless outreach and discussion, or in isolation trying to think up your own solutions. Neither is effective. My best advice is to find a mentor through a community or professional group who can open up their network and guide you through the initial phases of understanding different stakeholder needs and motivations relevant to your area. Find someone who will share their network and will coach you toward achieving your goals.
Do such mentors exist? Yes. I serve as a mentor to groups supporting the achievement of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). One is in San Francisco, the other is in Chicago. Geography comes second to a mentor’s area of expertise and your combined personality fit. You can find structured groups that offer mentorships through nonprofit alliances, universities, think tanks, or civic clubs.
Most people who work in this sector want to help but are not always sure of the best way. The same advice applies here to prospective mentors as it does to mentees. Find groups cultivating young leaders and offer to share your knowledge, expertise, technology, or financial resources. There is a significant need for social impact leaders to teach practical governance from a relatable perspective.
Social impact leaders are mission-driven and embrace existential risks
All leaders must have the confidence to challenge one another’s thinking. Because social impact boards are focused on mission delivery and maximizing revenue to advance the organization’s cause, board members may sometimes stumble on granular details, thinking like employees instead of board executives — getting caught up in short term thinking. When short term thinking rears its head, board members can politely offer a reality check and turn the board focus toward the big picture.
All organizations face foreseeable and unforeseeable risks in the future. Board members should be able to answer each other’s questions about the future honestly. How will we deliver on our mission in the next three to five, or perhaps ten years? What is the future of this organization? Does it have a reason to exist? If we continue on the current course, will the organization be relevant in ten years?
Forward-facing questions will keep your board on track. Board members must be willing to ask themselves and their colleagues big strategic questions that do not necessarily have an immediate answer. Some people get discouraged or frustrated by the “what comes next” questions because it is not possible to arrive at a correct answer, but that’s all part of the process.
Successful board leaders take the initiative to be informed and accountable for the decisions management makes under the board’s strategic plan. This includes the board partnering with the CEO to research and understand how emerging technology trends may affect privacy or security and the organization's program partnerships. While management is responsible for daily operations, this does not lessen the board’s overall risk management responsibility.
What your fellow board members say or think will not always align with how they genuinely feel — or how they will act when negotiating with uncertainty about the future. This does not mean they are being dishonest. It may indicate that they value the relationship and perhaps have not fully processed the matter at hand in a way that allows for meaningful discussion. The best way to avoid misalignment is to keep communication channels open and flowing between board meetings. Spend time with people to understand how they think, what motivates them, and what causes them concern.
When colleagues share their doubts about the organization’s relevancy or ability to achieve change in the future its important to listen very closely. Part of what they may be describing could stem from their own lack of imagination and inexperience. This is a teachable moment to talk through their areas of concern. Their doubts may also be about trust and confidence in the leadership team. Boards operate on trust. This includes trust in fellow board members and the CEO to execute on the strategic plan — but mostly, trust in their own ability to lead during times of uncertainty. Not everyone will take a risk on themselves. Without a strong belief in the future and a secure bond of trust, board members become indecisive, unfocused, and can make the team dynamic counterproductive or sour the board culture. In the face of unexpected events, some will have doubts. It is natural. If leaders trust each other, the team works through doubts, setbacks, and differences and grows stronger.
Social impact leaders must create an agenda for the future, or be left behind
The pressure of leading through times of transition makes it easy to focus on what is right in front of you and hard to think longer-term when there is so much demand happening day-to-day. If you let the uncertainty of a shifting landscape distract you for too long, you eventually hit a wall and recognize what is missing — a vision for the future. The best solution I have found is a mind-shift from transitional to transformational thinking.
To build a strong agenda for the future requires having the right board directors, knowledgeable about their roles, and available to commit sufficient time to the organization. A successful board will convene often enough to identify early indicators of big change by observing how tools, technologies, and processes cluster together, indicating major shifts on the horizon. I highly recommend that board members explore taking an online course in futures thinking. Learning new skills and mindsets is a worthwhile investment of your time.
Social impact leaders spot qualities of effective board members outside of the boardroom
Board leaders are responsible for recruiting new board members from diverse professions to join the board. To successfully fulfill this responsibility requires a personality that is willing to step out of the comfort zone to meet and network with people from all different industries.
You can spot potential social impact board leaders by their empathic temperament. These are people who are deeply motivated to provide for the common good of humanity. Throughout history, they are the people who find reasons for optimism during dark times, sharing hope with the hopeless, even amid the most powerful crises and catastrophes that test humanity’s ability to endure. They understand the complex challenges facing society and believe they have something to contribute to the cause. They act on a moral obligation to give back, deliver justice, and help others heal.
In a professional setting, you will recognize them as actively engaged, effective communicators. They are the type of people who are highly responsive to initiating contact and outreach. Observe them guiding, and generating discussion and exploring new ideas both within and beyond their wheelhouse of expertise.
A firm understanding of board roles and responsibilities can help your board focus on creating criteria to identify ideal candidates. In my experience, the most successful board recruitment conversations happen well in advance of a formal process.
Social impact leaders approach boards as a collective working partnership
In all healthy partnerships, each party must be willing to talk about what’s working and what’s not for the relationship to function effectively.
A board’s ability to fulfill its responsibilities is critical to an organization’s long-term sustainability and success. While board officers take specialized roles, the bulk of governance responsibility should not fall on one person’s shoulders. Shared responsibility is essential.
High-functioning teams pay attention to producing results and share a level of commitment to each other and their organization. There is a strong trust between team members. They talk about what is working and what is not, and are willing to spot problems and opportunities and engage in conflict when necessary. Paying attention to producing results and outcomes comes naturally to teams where collective accountability for following through on agreements is part of its values and culture.
Ideally, boards operate as high-functioning teams that co-create strategies. High-functioning teams steer clear of time and energy drains like micromanaging or listening to reports rather than reviewing reports before meetings, approving predetermined decisions, and second-guessing staff decisions. These behaviors fail to meet the needs of a living, changing, and growing organization. Micromanaging and waiting for papers to be pushed back and forth is a sign the board is out of balance. It may be that one board member’s habits are holding back progress among the collective. Outside advisors or consultants can help refocus the group on higher-level initiatives.
By far, the most effective board leaders have a passion for the cause, are team players, and are willing to exercise and apply their wisdom and exceptional judgment independently. They arrive in the boardroom, ready to pour their energy and talent into the cause. They offer the CEO a safe sounding board to test ideas, gain additional perspectives, and courageously embrace challenging decisions to protect the organization’s best interest and advance the mission.
One of the biggest challenges I have observed among board members is the boundary between leadership and operations. New board members, in particular, may struggle to understand how to apply their roles and responsibilities. The board should be available to the CEO to provide support, feedback, and strategic advice from their collective deep well of knowledge on specific issues while crafting and designing the next steps in response to opportunities to advance the mission.
Social impact leaders cultivate the board’s decision making
We live in an age of abundant information at our fingertips. Yet, some of us cling to a primal aversion to unpleasant details, even if it can offer potentially useful new insights. As a board director, whether or not you are inclined to seek the facts, your board is responsible for the organization’s governance.
Good governance includes oversight, strategic planning, decision-making, and financial planning. These are shared responsibilities. Without all the facts, it is nearly impossible to make effective decisions — and effective decision making is a cornerstone of effective boards.
Board service is time-consuming. Remote communication is frequently necessary to coordinate with the leadership team. Adopting a board management software platform is one way to organize board communication and details. These platforms offer a structured and secure repository that only the board can access. Several major platforms offer a comprehensive suite of services to make scheduling meetings and keeping track of policies easier. Most services offer some form of project management automation for tracking and completing tasks assigned to board directors. Naturally, delegation is still a human task, but the platform offers a centralized resource.
Philanthropy will always need new leadership
Nonprofits bring hope and opportunity to communities. They also face significant challenges. These challenges offer a way to make a difference, serve a higher purpose, and contribute to the greater good.
Philanthropy is changing. With change comes resistance. The tension between the two can be resolved with the help of experienced leadership, relationships built on trust, and commitment to do right by others.
Technology has significantly changed the way partnerships between nonprofits and businesses are managed over the last decade. It will continue to change and evolve the way nonprofits operate in the next decade. Social impact leaders have an opportunity to imagine new ways to use technology to build networks that more effectively support communities and yield impact.