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Doing Board Service Differently: Couples Sharing a Board Seat

Many nonprofit boards are working to disrupt and transform outdated systems that have used “best practices” to avoid change and resist innovation.

Even BoardSource, a mainstream nonprofit think tank and board resource hub, purports that the current nonprofit board structure is broken. They have developed a new approach which they call Purpose Driven Leadership.

More than sixty-four million people in the United States serve on nonprofit boards and make life-changing decisions that impact us all. The nonprofit board experience affords social-do-gooders the opportunity to exercise their passion and utilize their expertise and talents for the public good. When nonprofit board service works efficiently, millions of people, animals, and environments will be positively transformed.

As a nonprofit consultant and board griot, I am always seeking to advance my knowledge and expertise about board service. In this vein, I have huddled up with two nonprofit gurus, Dr. Renee Rubin Ross, and Andy Robinson to explore how to do board work differently. Together we have more than a half century of experience working in the nonprofit sector.

We seek to uncover nontraditional and liberatory practices within nonprofit boards. Our curious minds have developed a few questions which we will be exploring:

  • Why can’t board structure and organization be more fluid?

  • Can staff serve on boards too? If so, how?

  • How can boards address inequity and create polices that imbue justice and belonging within board culture?

  • How can we create social change beyond the traditional board model?

When I learned from one of my board clients, Project Chimps, that they have embraced a nontraditional board structure, I immediately requested permission to interview a few of their board members. They agreed without hesitation.

In early July 2023, I conducted one interview on Zoom with two board members who each represent one half seat on Project Chimp’s board. Yes, this amazing nonprofit invites married couples to serve occupying just one seat on their board.

I found the idea fascinating and excitedly asked probing questions as the interview began. Each board member represented a husband-wife board seat.

Couple # 1 Lena and Jack (not their real names)

The first couple, new to the board and young in their careers and parenting are having a blast with this board experience. Lena shared “Our kids think we are so cool for doing this. We are setting a good example for them. It has become a thing for our family. The kids are fascinated by the chimps and have learned more about them through our experience.”

Couple # 2 Carrie and Thomas (not their real names)

The second couple has served on the board for years. Their kids are mature teens and young adults. Both have extremely hectic schedules where they travel to different coasts and countries. Thomas shared “I could not serve on this board by myself, and neither could my wife. Even with our busy lives, this structure allows us to participate and engage and we rarely miss a meeting”.

My questions:

Do you think this experience has helped your relationship with your partner?

“Absolutely,” says Lena. “We can both speak freely when we each attend meetings and it gives us something to talk about at the dinner table. I may read the latest newsletter and tell hubby about new programs or upcoming events. There are times when we must vote on a new policy or budget change. We don’t always agree but we compromise and come up with one decision. You know like in real life partnership.”

What are the advantages to this?

Thomas responds. “This model helps with board attendance and engagement. My wife and I also agreed to each serve on a different committee. She is interested in board development, and I wanted to be on the fundraising committee. We give without hesitation every year. Oh, and our daughter who most of the time thinks we are lame, says that us serving on this board together is cool.” We all break out in laughter.

Do you recommend that other nonprofits consider this board structure?

Both couples agree this is a great idea. “If you let people serve in ways that are convenient for them, they will participate. In addition to increased involvement, you will get diversity of thought and an eagerness to put the best interests of the organization first.”

I thanked each one of them and contacted Project Chimps to request a meeting with a member of their leadership team. Kristina Johns, their Development Director, accepted my invitation.

How has this model worked for Project Chimps?

“The husband-and-wife team board member structure works wonderfully for our organization. We have three couples who serve. They are extremely engaged and are loyal donors.

Now we are considering a shared board seat structure with two non-married people. We’re not quite there yet but we’ve had some interest from people with very busy schedules who would like to be involved. We are trying to meet people where they are. It will be a win-win situation once we figure it out.”

Implications for Diversity

As they work to diversify their board, this model has implications for their DEIB (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging) strategy.

Currently their members are predominantly white with some diversity. Like many boards, they have started their DEIB journey but have a ways to go, particularly with staff. “Part of the issue” says Kristina “is geography. We are in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Georgia, which is predominantly white, conservative, and remote.”

I am glad to be working with them to search nationally to identify open-minded individuals who understand that this is a new way to do board service.

Try Something New

As a board consultant who encourages my clients to be agile, I am proud of Project Chimps for trying something new. They adapted their structure to allow their board members to engage in ways that make sense for them.

Our Search Continues

Renee, Andy, and I will continue to research, listen, observe, and learn about nontraditional ways that allow people to engage in nonprofit work to help others. Board service is my niche so look for more from The Board Pro as we travel our journey together.

We will keep you in the loop!

Christal M. Cherry, Principal and CEO of the Board Pro, is a national consultant working with nonprofits to build more productive, impactful, and joyful experiences for their boards. Sign up for Christal's next webinar, Liberate Your Board: Decolonizing Strategies for Joyful Board Service on Tuesday, August 29, 2023 @ 2pm EST.

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