What do boards have to do with racial equity? In this issue, we hear from Jim Taylor (Vice President of Leadership Initiatives) and Anne Wallestad (President & CEO) of BoardSource on key findings from the most recent Leading with Intent study, how they are re-imagining board leadership, and how boards can—and should—do better when it comes to racial equity.

“First and foremost, I do this work because it’s personal to me as a Black man in our country. Prior to joining BoardSource, I worked in the for-profit, nonprofit, and local government sectors at different points of my career, but always with a thread of consistency around being in roles that were tied to access to opportunity for underserved audiences — largely people of color. It’s been very, very rewarding for me personally to do this work, and now, being at BoardSource, to do it in a way that really stretches across so many missions.” – Jim

“I do the work that I do because I have seen time and time again how organizations rise and fall in lots of different ways based on their leadership, including their board leadership. I have had lots of experiences where boards are the reason that an organization is doing well, and experiences where the board is what’s broken and where things are falling apart. So I’ve seen really firsthand why and how boards matter.” – Anne 

[Image description: Top left image of Jim smiling into the camera against a light grey background. Jim is wearing dark rectangular glasses, and a purple sweater and a light blue collared shirt underneath. Bottom left image of Anne smiling into the camera against a light grey background. Anne is wearing a black blazer with black shirt underneath, and a statement necklace and matching earrings.]

Philanthropy has been stepping up for racial justice in a big way since 2020 and continuing into this year. More racial justice funding has been gifted towards racial justice than the last 9 years combined (CANDID report). Needless to say, boards are being asked to step up as well. What are some observations you’ve seen in terms of organizational responses that center racial equity to the dual pandemics? How has the past year impacted BoardSource? 

Anne: From the BoardSource vantage point what we’re seeing is that there is just much greater awareness of what isn’t working and that, if we are to see change, we all as individuals and organizations and systems need to play a role in undoing racism and rebuilding systems in ways that are just and equitable. And I think boards are still really struggling with what that means for them and their institutions, but the recognition that something is needed and something needs to be different is there in a way that it wasn’t, even just a year ago. I would say that “the ground has softened” and I’m very encouraged by the data that’s coming out in terms of increased action.

Jim: Related to Anne’s point on “softening the ground,” I would say that in my own experiences over the past year I’ve been approached by several boards (usually by white members of boards) with words to the effect of, “We realize it’s time for us to get off the sidelines. Where do we begin?” I’ve found the phrase “off the sidelines” to be really interesting, as if they are acknowledging that they haven’t been “in the game” until this point. They say that they’ve always been in favor of racial equity, but haven’t really engaged on the issue.  And I think in this past year that has changed; the desire to want to be more engaged has been very clear. I think boards are showing a greater willingness to reassess their traditional ways of operating and engaging. And there’s been a greater appetite for support and guidance to help them in their evolution.

BoardSource recently wrapped up an exciting new study called Leading With Intent. What was the study about? What questions were you hoping this study would answer?

Anne:  Generally, Leading with Intent is a study that we do every several years that is about trend mapping across the nonprofit sector and looking at what’s happening in boardrooms. It’s a survey of nonprofit CEOs or executive directors and board chairs. We use it as a tool to capture a snapshot in time on what leaders are telling us about their boards’ composition, about their boards’ performance in key areas, and about board culture. In our upcoming Leading with Intent, which focuses on the boards of non-grantmaking (versus philanthropic) organizations, we’re delving more into how the board is showing up in terms of equity leadership, and race equity in particular. 

Jim: With respect to the DEI findings there are a few points I would call out.

  1. Boards may be getting slightly more diverse, but they are far from representing the communities that they serve.
  2. Boards express dissatisfaction with their current level of diversity, but their recruitment practices do not align with their diversity goals. The data indicates that they haven’t adopted the practice of reaching outside of their networks in a way that leads to a significant increase in board diversity.
  3. Boards that include people of color are more likely to have adopted DEI practices than boards that do not include people of color, which leads us to wonder if boards that include people of color fundamentally see the work differently than boards that do not include people of color.

From your observations, what are the top barriers boards face when engaging in racial equity work? Re: Jim mentioned hearing fears of taking a more explicit race equity approach. Do you have examples of organizations that were able to move through that?

Jim: What we found is that in many cases boards can become tentative or apprehensive about engaging in this work in a meaningful way. Boards sometimes express concerns like, ‘If we make a racial equity statement that is too strong, is that going to be off-putting for some of our longtime audience members or longtime donors?’ In many cases they express a concern that they might lose donors if they come out too strongly in favor of racial equity, but they don’t think about donors and supporters that they might gain by taking a stance on the principle of racial equity. We’ve also heard of cases where boards have decided to put a pause on their racial equity work while they deal with other priorities and challenges during COVID – not recognizing that we’re living in a moment where they should be centering their work on racial equity even more, rather than de-emphasizing it.

Anne: Yes and I would just add—and this is informed by the data, but it’s anecdotal: Jim and I share this view that the dearth of diversity at the board level means it’s really hard for a lot of boards to understand why a race-based analysis matters. I think some of them just don’t recognize it. 

As an organization that is committed to deepening their own internal racial equity journey, what can you share about important milestones on your journey?

Anne: I think the first shift was really acknowledging that we needed to be a leadership organization instead of being a technical support provider that is oriented to providing only the support or guidance for which organizations self-identify the need. To do that, we knew we needed to deepen our understanding of what’s happening in boardrooms, and give voice to what we think needs to change. Board diversity and board action on racial equity is at the center of this.

Jim: We have also been very intentional about our internal journey, both at the board and staff level. There are lots of things that we have done to support learning and change over a number of years. One thing that has been particularly important this past year is our POC (People of Color) caucus that meets periodically, where we talk about issues that relate to us. We got together to talk right after the verdict came down [in the Breonna Taylor case] just to talk about what that felt like. And there are other examples of times like that, where we have come together, sometimes scheduled, sometimes unscheduled, to just to check in with each other as necessary. We have also been intentional about doing this as a full team, and acknowledge that having intentional conversations about what’s happening and how it impacts us in both spaces is really important.

What role do you see BoardSource to playing/would you like BoardSource to play in being a leader in the nonprofit sector/philanthropy space?

Jim:  We will continue the work we’re doing to support boards that are working to make their boards more diverse, more inclusive, and more equity-focused. We’re currently working on an action guide that’s going to speak to how board members can engage in this work. 

We also expect to be doing some research as we get into the second half of the year around the experiences of leaders of color. And we will continue to stay connected to the sector and listen to its evolving needs so that we can continue to provide and, in some cases, curate tools and resources. We know lots of organizations are creating great resources that can be applicable to what boards and organizations need, so we want to create our own and also call out and highlight those resources that are coming from other places as well.

Anne: We recently released an article that outlines what we believe is an essential shift in the way that boards understand and embody their leadership roles. This thinking around “The Four Principles of Purpose-Driven Board Leadership” will guide our leadership voice around the need and means for change, including as it relates to board leadership on racial equity. We also continue to believe that having data is really, really important because it compels skeptical boards about the need for change. So, in addition to trying to do the work that Jim mentioned in terms of some qualitative and quantitative research around the experiences of board leaders of color, we want to do a study that is more Leading with Intent-like that looks specifically at foundation boards. We haven’t decided exactly what our methodology for that is going to be, but we do feel like we need something that’s more of that trend mapping for foundation boards, specifically.

REP Network and Ecosystem At A Glance

As Violence Against Asian Americans Intensifies, the Moment for Philanthropy to Act Is Now. Read the joint statement from Patricia Eng of AAPIP and Erik Stegman of NAP.

Sign onto AAPIP’s Call for Solidarity and Collective Action: Asian American Philanthropy Letter of Intention and check out their curated resource directory.

Read NAP’s reflection on Deb Haaland’s appointment as Secretary of the Interior.

Conferences and Events


Borealis Philanthropy is hiring for the following positions: Operations Director, Executive Assistant, Communications Director, Director of Racial Equity Initiatives, Black Led Movement Program Officer, Director of Disability Inclusion Fund, and Racial Equity in Journalism Director. View all postings here.