Developing Anti-Racist Nonprofit Governance

In 2020, Code for Science & Society (CS&S) and Invest in Open Infrastructure (IOI; one of our sponsored projects) were each engaged in building our respective organizations’ governance. Both organizations were looking at recruiting and onboarding new people to our governing bodies.

As we embarked on this work, we observed areas in which reliance on our existing professional and social networks reinforced the white supremacy that exists in the nonprofit sector. For any small nonprofit organization or initiative, functional governance is critical to advance the work and add healthy oversight and accountability. The concept of a Board itself is an old, capitalist structure that is in many ways responsible for holding the “soft power” of an organization and remains overwhelmingly white.

To support the development of CS&S and IOI’s governing bodies in a way that is mindful of historical racism in nonprofits and across science and technology, we engaged leaders in equity, DeEtta Jones and Associates (DJA), to work with us to develop processes to center anti-racist values in the way we develop governance. Today, we share our foundational work with DJA and offer our first update of what CS&S has learned through implementation.

See DJA’s work and download documents to support your processes here:

When we began our work with DJA, we had recruited four new Board members and prepared to transition off two existing members.  We hoped to focus on the thoughtful onboarding of our new members and the creation of new committees to divide the Board’s work. Prior to bringing on new members, our Board was an all white space. So, beyond just adding new members, who bring their own experiences and personalities, the Board needed to shift away from a being space that likely prioritized white comfort by default. To follow our work with DJA and the resources their team created, we will share our process of growth as we use these resources on the blog to support other organizations looking to evolve their governance.

What have we learned so far?

We had the opportunity through this work to not only focus on improving our own governance through evolving our Board onboarding, but also a front seat at the work of one of our projects in addressing systemic inequities in their decision making structures through my role in the IOI Steering Committee. These foundational pieces of work have taken extra care, time, and thoughtfulness to design, set up processes for, and implement.

Below are a few key thing learned from our work in implementing DJA’s recommendations for Board Onboarding, reflecting on the past six months. Some recommendations were straightforward to implement in the recruitment and onboarding process and others were more difficult in practice. (For more on IOI’s work as part of this process, visit their blog.)

What was easy? Documenting expectations, processes, and areas of work.

For example, as recommended by DJA, we dealt proactively with money by sharing explicitly that there is no fundraising expectation for Board members. Instead our priority is to recruit members who can offer their time and engagement with developing processes to help mature our organization, and we did our best to communicate clear expectations around those commitments in a document outlining current roles and expectations.

What was hard? Anticipating the time needed for deeper discussions and building rapport.

“While there is certainly a lot of ongoing work, this is a perfect opportunity to revisit norms, discuss how the board works together, and build team cohesion” - DJA

Because in-person meetings were off the table in 2020-2021, the most difficult item to implement has been reserving time for conversation outside the necessary business of the Board. At the meeting where new members were appointed, our organization had many other items of business to address. Without the built-in unstructured time of an in-person meeting, we needed to focus our limited Zoom meeting time on the formal business of the Board. This left little space for questions, discussion, and relationship building for Board members who did not know each other. Luckily our Board members have not had difficulties developing rapport outside meetings!

While our intention had been to “model what challenging implicit and explicit bias looks like to new board members” and to “ make space for new ideas and be open to other ways of doing things”, but without dedicated time in meeting agendas this intention may easily be subsumed by conversations around the work of the Board. I want to call attention to this as it is a relatively simple planning issue that will be anticipated in future.  By not building in time enough to co-create communication norms with new members, we slipped automatically into our existing pattern of communication and carried out the business of the meeting.

Executive Directors and Boards bringing on new membership via video calls should plan for additional meeting times or longer meetings in the first six months. Adding flexibility to the agenda will allow for extra discussion as well as enough time to set communication norms and build rapport. Moving forward at CS&S, to allow more time for deeper discussion on core issues of the nonprofit we will conduct a two day Board retreat later this spring.

As we continue to develop our processes based on DJA’s recommendations and work with IOI to evolve their governance structure, we commit to reflecting back. I thank our Board members, management staff, IOI’s Director Kaitlin Thaney and the IOI Steering Committee for working with us. Stay tuned for more as we continue this work.