The research is clear: Diverse teams get better results. From 2019 to 2021 corporate boards increased their diversity by 50 percent, just as many social sector boards have responded to societal wakeup calls by recruiting more members who can represent the communities they serve. But once a board becomes more community-anchored, how are they to embrace the challenge of inclusive governance and bring out the best insights from their new members? Here, the issue becomes much less clear.

Through interviews with governance experts, with foundation and nonprofit leaders who have prioritized developing inclusive board meetings, and our own work in philanthropy advising and board service, we’ve identified four steps that foundation, board, and sector leaders can follow, breaking down and applying ideas for inclusive governance into concrete questions and tactics.

  1. Agree on the Big Why
    There is no shortage of strategies for creating successful board meetings. For example, BoardSource’s classic Governance as Leadership reframes the fiduciary, strategic, and leadership roles of a trustee through a lens of generative discussion, and their Principles of Purpose-Driven Board Leadership speaks to ecosystems, equity, and participant voice. But inclusion that draws out board members’ unique backgrounds and knowledge in discussions can be much trickier. “The framework invites you to think in a certain way,” as Bill Ryan, a coauthor of Governance as Leadership told us, “but the real payoff comes when boards figure out what conditions they need to have in place to enable it.”
  2. Design Agendas to Create Generative Conversations
    Allocating too much of any board meeting to “state-of-the-union” presentations can build walls of jargon between those building the presentations and those who bring community insight.
  3. Build Board Members’ Financial Expertise
    A board’s fiduciary responsibility is non-negotiable, and building generative board conversations doesn’t mean skipping reviews of investments, budgets, and funding for initiatives. But creating inclusive conversations does call for extra effort to elicit participation of all board members in how grants or programs have fostered change, and how they could create deeper, stronger change going forward. Indeed, such reviews can lead to breakthrough ideas.
  4. Bring Views of Those You Seek to Help Into All Strategy Discussions
    Fiduciary responsibility calls for looking back and learning, but a board’s strategic responsibility is also to look forward, anticipating resource and programmatic needs and ideating ways to address them. Every board member will be concerned for the needs of those whom the organization seeks to help, especially members with direct experience of those needs. Thus, informing every meeting with directly communicated views of program participants can anchor inclusive discussion, be it a lunch speaker, video testimony, survey findings to paint a data-driven picture, or stories from program staff working directly with participants.

Read the full article about inclusive board meetings by Katie Smith Milway and Susan Wolf Ditkoff at Stanford Social Innovation Review.