Purpose-Driven Leadership – Lessons from GEO’s Racial Equity Journey

by Marcus Walton

Leadership within the social sector today is as challenging as ever. As a generation of long-tenured executives steadily matriculate out of institutional leadership roles, staff, boards and representatives from all facets of social sector organizations – as well as the communities we care most about – struggle to identify pathways forward for effectively eliminating the most persistent social issues and build affirming networks of support that reinforce the social fabric of this nation.

Perhaps more than any other time in recent history, civil society, including governments, nonprofits and the philanthropic sector, is revisiting the fundamental premises that structure its institutions, determine its value and, literally, justify its existence. 

Conversations about power, equity and democracy, as well as the impact of dominant cultural norms, policies and practices that promote advantage for some groups and the subjugation of others, remain central to our collective experiences. In many ways, leaders are reckoning with a history of social deprivation and wondering how to do so with fairness, integrity, and positive impact across a multi-faceted web of constituency groups.

The GEO community has proven a reliable resource for understanding the prevailing themes that challenge grantmakers to respond effectively to best meet the needs of the communities we serve. Participants within GEO programs and events such as The Change Leaders in Philanthropy Fellowship (CLIPF), the Champions for Change Cohort, CEO and Senior Leaders Sessions and the Learning Conference have provided direct insight into the most relevant issues influencing philanthropic culture and practices. Furthermore, recognizing the critical importance of learning alongside our peers, activities conducted in partnership with colleagues who are similarly committed to transforming philanthropic culture and practice provide additional insight into the leading-edge thinking happening at this very moment. When we are intentional in our efforts to cultivate trusting relationships with each other, we are better positioned to uncover specific examples of practice that inform how we can improve both the quality and experience of our work as grantmakers.  

As we consider the current state of the field – especially coming out of a period dominated by the myriad impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic – we view purpose-driven leadership as essential for preserving democracy and defining inclusive justice-oriented work within this evolving sector.

In her article outlining the four principles of Purpose-Driven Board Leadership, Anne Wallestad, CEO of BoardSource, asks a critical question about whether nonprofit boards, as they currently exist, are equipped to govern the social good organizations for which they are responsible. She offers an assessment of the role and structure of nonprofit boards, noting how their flexibility and composition (which includes individuals existing outside of an organization’s structure who are charged with leading those within it) present both opportunities and challenges for holding itself accountable to mutually-held standards of effectiveness for the organization. As evidence, she offers the findings from BoardSource’s Leading with Intent study, which found that among 800 public charity CEOs and Board chairs, nonprofit boards are preoccupied with fundraising as their primary responsibility, disconnected from the communities and people they serve, ill-informed about the ecosystems in which their organizations are operating and lacking racial and ethnic diversity. Wallestad concludes that changing the current orientation of nonprofit boards is necessary for them to be effective stewards of their organizations.

For decades, grantmakers have described power dynamics at the board level as a telling determinant of whether efforts to effectively meet the needs of struggling communities succeed or fail. It is not uncommon to observe, for example, boards who prefer the organizations under their stewardship to minimize the impacts of pertinent, systemic conditions – an approach that inevitably fails to eliminate barriers to accessing opportunity and essential resources. These questions regarding board effectiveness feel more acute within the global philanthropic ecosystem of organizations that have recently awakened to the impacts of pervasive historical cycles of societal inequities which have disadvantaged generations of Black, indigenous and other communities across a diaspora of identities and cultural heritages.

When considering the bigger societal question of how to achieve a thriving equitable future as a pluralistic society, the GEO community arrives at the same conclusion: nonprofit boards, as they currently exist, are not well-positioned to lead with the necessary skill, will or attention to complexity required for all communities to thrive.

The Purpose-Driven Leadership framework invites a field response that challenges conventional ideas of board leadership to shift away from a primary focus on the preservation of organizational status, position and power toward a more expansive consideration of how the organization’s status, position and power can be leveraged both to advance the core purpose of the organization and to generate optimal positive impact for the group of similarly-focused organizations operating throughout the philanthropic landscape.

The four principles of Purpose-Driven Board Leadership are as follows:

  1. Purpose before organization: prioritizing the organization’s purpose, versus the organization itself.
  2. Respect for ecosystem: acknowledging that the organization’s actions can positively or negatively impact its surrounding ecosystem, and a commitment to being a respectful and responsible ecosystem player.
  3. Equity mindset: committing to advancing equitable outcomes and interrogating or avoiding the ways in which the organization’s strategies and work may reinforce systemic inequities.
  4. Authorized voice and power: recognizing that organizational power and voice must be authorized by those impacted by the organization’s work.

In practice, the GEO community teaches us that a focus on results without ensuring a high-quality experience for frontline staff, organizational partners and other individual contributors to the successful execution of any shared vision for progress, such as board volunteers, only leads to misalignment of expectations, disappointment across participating parties and potential distrust of leadership on any set of issues or strategies. Only by decolonizing [1] our thinking about GEO’s existence as a support resource within the philanthropic sector can we begin to appreciate the deep impact possible for advancing change collectively within the ecosystem of actors who are committed to advancing progress, societally. No singular institution can advance just practices for an entire industry of practitioners, and a siloed approach to grantmaking has proven unfulfilling for all parties involved. Indeed, a network-centric ecosystem approach to grantmaking offers a more mutually satisfying alternative.

As we continue along our own internal racial equity journey – which entails moving through the heartbreaking process of acknowledging past harm to staff and board members as well as shifting conventional practices, eliminating harmful policies and re-imagining aspects of the organizational infrastructure to reinforce joint ownership of organizational labor – we are learning firsthand the essential value of establishing high quality relationships with a wide range of colleagues who share our commitment to purpose. Adopting an equity mindset and operating in partnership with the communities we seek to serve increases our ability to understand and dismantle the prevailing power dynamics with appropriate sensitivity for all involved, which promotes the dignified cultivation of collective genius among the people with the most insight into the nuances of any issues (and protects against extraction). The result: better appreciation for the presence of community assets, needs, preferences, and aspirations.

Practically, this positions the organization to re-imagine the systems within which we operate and advance equity effectively. By prioritizing the development of trust, which is the critical currency for advancing change, among all contributors to our collective philanthropic efforts, we are more intentionally establishing the grounds for accountability, practicing rigor and scanning for how any organizational decision or strategy may create more equitable outcomes, or reinforce systemic inequities.

Nonprofit and philanthropic boards wield significant institutional power, which leaves in the balance questions of how best to steward essential resources for advancing social progress. No more timely question may exist outside of how to maximize positive impact in service of the core purpose of grantmaking institutions. The GEO community teaches us that the four principles of Purpose-Driven Board Leadership appropriately position the people impacted by the work of philanthropic institutions – from program conceptualization and design to data collection, implementation through evaluation – as central to effective grantmaking practice. When combined with similar frameworks for re-imagining the structures that shape leadership, governance and philanthropic practices that are trust-based, community-driven and equity-centered, the evolution of the field bending toward an arc of justice feels not only possible, but accessible today, if not inevitable.


[1] Decolonizing refers to the intentional practice of identifying and replacing the dominant cultural norms historically associated with the political and social construction of “whiteness” with racially-equitable ones, which prioritize cooperative inclusive ways of operating that honor the wisdom and values found in a wide range of diverse ancestral/familial traditions rather than one hegemonic point of view.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *