Generating ideas, connections, and action

Creating Space for Transformational Board Leadership


If you’re reading this, you have likely worked with nonprofit board members in some capacity - perhaps as a coach, a nonprofit staff member or executive, a funder, or even as a board member yourself. Having the right board members engaged in useful ways can prove critical to the success of an organization, support its leadership to navigate challenges and transitions, to prioritize goals and to pivot when necessary.


Yet high levels of board engagement - where board members go above and beyond - can be difficult for many executive directors to foster. As members of Leadership Learning Community’s board, we saw our 2018 retreat as an opportunity to reshape our board culture. LLC grounds leadership for social change in shared responsibility that arises out of trusting relationships, authenticity, and generosity. With four new members and a new Board Chair transitioning in over the past 18 months, it was the perfect opportunity to intentionally build a board culture that leaned further into LLC’s values and approaches.

Learn about the four ways we decolonized our board retreat:


  1. We Hosted Ourselves, at Home. We want our executive director, Deborah Meehan, to know that every one of us is all in and that she can rely on us to work. This required we build in our Board members a strong sense of individual and collective ownership over LLC’s future.To put this idea into action, we took total ownership of designing and facilitating our own two-day board retreat, rather than putting that responsibility on our executive director.

    How we did it.
    Three board members volunteered to plan the retreat - two newer members (including the new Board Chair) and one longtime member. While checking in with Deborah along the way, we held ourselves fully responsible for setting the goals, designing sessions, and recruiting other Board members to co-lead sessions. And we hosted the meeting at a Board member’s home in Philadelphia. This setting proved to be a defining feature of the retreat. Sitting at ease on comfortable chairs, couches or pillows on the floor, rather than in chairs spread around a conference room table, created a more relaxed vibe.


  2. We Built Relationships As the Foundation for our Leadership. Even though we know that relationships are the foundation of healthy network leadership, we often don’t put relationship-building at the center Board meetings. Our eight-member Board is a mix of longtime and relatively new members living all over the country. Most of our meetings are held via video conferences, rather than face-to-face. This time around, we put an emphasis on getting to know and care about each other as authentic and whole people, beyond our current roles and organizations. And we did not consider relationship-building as separate from strategy-building. We did not “do team-building” then get to the “real work.” Rather, our personal purpose and mission were woven into our life stories, which led to how we could support LLC with our talents, curiosities, relationships, and ideas. And from there, strategy blossomed.

    How we did it:
    We devoted the entire first day of the retreat on building relationships. Each session of sharing stories and spending time together opened us up more and more with each other. Oriented by a few prompts, people were given space to share what and for however long they wanted to. After addressing logistics and introducing a new staff member, we began our storytelling by looking inward, tapping into our creativity. We took about 20 minutes to free write, then shared about the people, places and forces that shaped us, using the Where I’m From approach created by George Ella Lyon. What we discovered is that we each had rich, funny, painful, hopeful, inspiring stories of resilience. And we realized we were quite willing to be honest and vulnerable with each other.

    We then went a little deeper in our next session, talking about the people and communities that shaped us and our life journeys. We linked our personal stories to the American story, and discovered how our differing paths have led us to this work of tying racial equity and leadership together. We could see rich diversity of life experiences unfold layer by layer as we sat in a circle and told our stories. By doing so, we built understanding, respect and connections that would be the foundation for the strategic work to come.


  3. We Experienced Something Together. We know that relationships are built through shared experiences. We also know that understanding how leadership for racial equity happens is contextual. It is tied to where we are. It is about people who are engaging, and people who are setting the conversation. Yet so often, we find ourselves sitting in a conference room, abstractly discussing ideas that are deeply about people and places.

    How we did it.
    We wanted to see how each of us sees and engages around leadership and racial equity in the world. (We also needed to stop eating snacks and get off our bums). So a newer Board member and long-time Philly resident planned and guided us through a field trip down the street to the Museum of the American Revolution. Our guiding questions going into the museum were: “How is the story of leadership told? Who is at the center? Who is absent or misrepresented?”

    The museum’s installations, struck each of us in different ways. Some of us were eager to see how the museum, which opened in the fall of 2017, curated this slice of American history using modern storytelling tools. Some of us were distressed by what we saw as yet another framing of the American story from a white, male perspective. One of us needed to leave the museum because being in the space was too painful. So another board member left with her and they got into a deep conversation about the power of story, the victors’ version of history and the absent narratives that continue to shape how we see ourselves and the people around us. As all of us sat together afterwards over drinks, sharing how we’d experienced the exhibits, we learned quite a bit about how we each move in the world. And we were heartened by our ability to have an honest, respectful conversation when we approached a sensitive topic from different perspectives.


  4. We Created Space for Emergence. While we as a Board believe in the emergence that LLC network strategies have relied upon - how could our retreat agenda “plan” for it? More than what we did - it’s how we showed up. Our agenda provided guidance, but did not bind us. We were flexible with time, not rushing anyone, which allowed us to fully express ourselves and connect more deeply. We drew connections between LLC’s mission, our professional roles and our personal values. We got a deeper understanding of the motivations and talents within the group as well as a better sense of how we fit together. We considered the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead. And as we moved from getting to know each other to what we saw as possible for LLC, our sharpest thinking was ignited from an internal sense of inspiration.  

    How we did it.
    We began Day 2 aligning ourselves around LLC’s mission, each responding to the questions: How is being on LLC Board part of your personal/professional mission? How could being on the Board can you find greater alignment between your work/org and equity? We put a stake in our commitment to the organization. And then we got practical.  Deborah laid out for us the emerging opportunities and challenges on LLC’s horizons. We gave ourselves time to dig in, which allowed us to see what LLC needed and could do from fresh eyes. Then, rapid-fire, we each shared the particular contributions we each wanted to make to support LLC’s in this moment. What was amazing what how our diverse backgrounds and areas of expertise led us to stakeout complementary roles - from strategic planning, hiring a co-executive director and conference planning to fundraising, evaluation and communications.

    We found ourselves giving serious thought to our edge work on racial trauma and healing, the ecosystem in which we operate and how we talk about our work. This led to us to spontaneously mapping out the ecosystem in which we operate, listing about three dozen organizations that work in racial equity, leadership development and/or networking. It was a powerful exercise. Identifying current and potential partners in the work made the enormity of the challenges before us feel manageable. It underscored the fact that we are just one star in a constellation of organizations seeking to build a more just and better connected society. And we knew that the list would continue to grow as we took more time to study the landscape. Our framing for this assessment was one of collaboration, not competition. This process underscored for us what we had been experiencing the entire retreat - we want to understand, support and work with others who are committed alongside us, and who each have something unique to contribute to the larger whole.


Dig into our Board Agenda, make it your own, and tell us how it goes!


So now what?

We’re off and running and we invite you to run alongside us, learning and sharing as we go about how we can lead and be on Boards in ways that foster co-ownership, a authentic relationships, and emergence. We will continue to share the progress and setbacks we experience as well as the course corrections we make. And we hope you will do the same.

Test out our agenda with your own Board. Make them better. Comment on this blog. Reach out to us directly.


There is no single, right way to approach this work. We trust our journey will be richer and more impactful because we’ve intentionally put authentic relationships at the center of our work together. We know that the bonds we’re building will help us dream big, create, take risks, reflect and repeat. And we take heart in knowing we’re not alone in this work.