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Empathy & Compassion: The New Mandate for Board Leadership

Updated: Jun 2, 2022

Empathy and compassion have always been important skills and traits for nonprofit leaders, but in this new climate of fear, mistrust, insecurity, violence, and racism it is no longer optional. We are at a tipping point and nonprofit leaders, including board of directors, must recognize their complicity in harmful practices that exclude, overlook, and marginalize so many demographic groups in the nonprofit sector and beyond.

Recently the call to step outside of ourselves and into the shoes of others has surfaced and resurfaced far too many times in our personal lives outside of work and board service.

Over the past month, most Americans have experienced great empathy and compassion surrounding the violent massacres of innocent Black, Asian and Latino children, and adults. All of us can relate to shopping in a grocery store and most to taking kids to school and expecting them to return home safely. We also believe we should be able to go to church, graduations, the movies, the mall, spa, and concerts without fear of being attacked, shot, or killed. These are human anticipations and freedoms that are not determined by race, ethnicity, gender, and ideology. Unfortunately, these inalienable rights are not realities for people of color and other marginalized communities in America today. Even so people of all races have rightfully extended cups of kindness, love, and financial support to those most impacted. Empathy and compassion are front and center. Our common humanhood glows at times like these.

Can we also glow in less traumatic and life-threatening situations and carry our empathy and compassion into the work we do to support causes that impact people, animals, and environments?

It is the charge of nonprofit leaders-- including board members, who are responsible for the finances, decisions and policies that shape our ability to make change-- to lead with the same empathy and compassion for all who work in the sector. This includes fellow board members, organizational leadership and staff, donors, and volunteers. We can no longer afford to keep those in power fat, out front and comfortable while others suffer behind the scenes. For boards, this means a monumental shift in who leads, who decides, and who acts to support life-changing missions.

New research (Harvard Business Review, December 2021) demonstrates the importance of empathy and compassion in leadership as it impacts everything from innovation to inclusion to retention. Great board leadership requires a fine mix of all kinds of skills to create the conditions for board engagement and successful performance. All who desire and are qualified to serve are deserving of an opportunity to be a leader, specifically a board leader in communities they represent. Black people should govern boards, women should chair committees, LGBTQI should lead task forces, Latinos should recruit new board members, younger people should lead the gala and so on.

Until those with historical power– older, white, Christian, heterosexual, male board members- can embrace diversity, shared knowledge, and differing values, lifestyles, and viewpoints as an asset to board service, nothing will change. They must recognize the loneliness of the token Black board member. They must hear the quiet disappointment of the Asian board member who is overlooked when big decisions are made, or the frustrated LGBTQI member who is not invited for cocktails after the board meeting. They must see that not everyone can participate in the $5,000 give or get policy. They must begin to challenge their bylaws, behaviors, and cultural norms and understand how they show great disregard and pain for those who do not look, or act like them.

Once board leaders can connect with empathy, that is, stepping into another’s shoes, they must lead with compassion. This is the willingness to act to alleviate discomfort and suffering of others who they work with, particularly other board members. This will require:

  1. Taking a step back to get clear perspective of the injustices of their peer board members who are experiencing inequity in board spaces

  2. Listening to board members to understand their lived experiences

  3. Asking board members what they need and how they would like to be included

  4. Encouraging and empowering board members to speak up or stand up, while they stand back, and allow them to go for the committee chair positions or other positions of power

  5. A willingness to address and change bylaws, policies and practices that enforce inequitable behaviors

  6. A shift in culture so that all members are engaged and feel a sense of belonging

As a board consultant, I have been pondering about empathy and compassion in board work and how it can help to create harmonious spaces for members to grow personally and guide organizations and transform the world. This may seem idealistic and naive, but I am a dreamer who believes that relating and accepting the feelings and experiences of others, and then empowering them to use it for good is the best part of being a glowing and growing human.

Christal M. Cherry is a glowing and growing human and Principal & CEO of the Board Pro, a boutique consulting firm offering nonprofits the opportunity to grow and nourish their boards for better engagement and productivity.

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