The current debate on transformation in the sector can’t leave out the critical role the board can and must play. Trustees are often characterised as risk averse, slow or resistant to change – and many CEOs will have uttered the words, ‘the board will never sign that off’.  But how true is this?  Are all boards caught between caution, outright conservatism and/or their own comfort with the status quo? Or is there a frustrated desire to be more radical in how organisations can best respond to increasing global challenges?

As many boards (both profit and non-profit) will testify, our transformation wasn’t the result of one epiphany moment, but rather there was a confluence of factors. As a board, we’d often asked about what our future business model should be. We were a medium sized INGO, headquartered in the UK, with five country offices running programmes. We also had a proud history of supporting movement building in the majority world, and ensuring we remained relevant to this work should have been an existential question. Yet exploring this was invariably put to one side as we focused on sustaining the finances.

This changed when three challenges around funding, identity and accountability converged and required us to take a more holistic view. For most not-for-profit boards, focusing almost exclusively on fundraising is not a new experience – and that’s one of the fundamental problems. Our existence felt dependent on responding to, and being successful with, the next institutional call for proposals and generating enough ‘unrestricted funds’ to manage a deficit and balance the books. This absorbed our meetings and contributed to what felt like an identity crisis.

Many on the board felt that we’d become complicit in a system which prioritised donor requirements over the needs and priorities of disability activists. In hindsight, we’d already spent years undergoing a creeping transformation, one where we were now serving the needs of institutional donors and large northern INGOs as opposed to the disability justice movements we were set up to serve.

This realisation created an accountability challenge. In addition to our statutory obligations, ADD’s accountability to disabled peoples’ organisations in the majority world needed to be at the board’s core. Yet in the pursuit of funding, we had lost sight of our mission. This started to become uncomfortably clear when disability activists indicated in an internal consultation a disconnect between our approach and their needs. We were now taking space and creating dependency rather than funding and championing the work of southern led movements.

As a board we acknowledged that we could only solve these interconnected challenges by undergoing a more radical transformation.  We needed to change our funding, rediscover our identity as an ally of disabled activists and make ourselves more accountable to the communities we existed to support.

This recognition has both emboldened and underpinned our transformation journey and we plan to formally acknowledge and apologise for the unintentional harm our former way of working caused disability justice movements. We also want to share our experiences in the hope that our reflections might help other boards demand and drive transformation.

Read the full article about board governance by Matt Jackson and Jillian Popkins at Alliance Magazine.