Towards a More Inclusive Board Future
How Boulder Food Rescue has been transitioning it’s board and seeks to further radicalize the nonprofit leadership space
Boulder Food Rescue works to create a more just and less wasteful food system through the sustainable redistribution of otherwise wasted food to communities in need. We create No Cost Grocery Programs, which are designed to address these barriers by taking food to people in places they are already gathered, such as affordable housing sites. They are community led distribution points that engage the voices, experiences, and leadership of program participants. Community leaders run their own unique food access programs and determine when, where and how the food is redistributed. Community autonomy provides a more affirming, accessible, and effective program for users. In operating these programs, trust and relationship-building are essential – we are redistributing produce and power.
Although BFR is community-led and community-run in our programs, we had some work to do around making sure the entire organization was community-led and run, not just the programmatic level. It’s great to give participants decision making power about their food access programs, but decisions that affect them, like BFR’s budget, strategic plan, overall logistics schedule, and bigger picture, there was less access to. We needed to take a look at the organization as a whole and see what barriers existed to keep participants from being involved in the staff and board level.
Prioritizing staff pay and well being and encouraging participants to apply for staff jobs increased the number of participants on our staff (5 out of 9 staff are former participants).We did the thing that a lot of organizations do first, by creating a participant advisory board. On one hand, it’s nice for participants to engage in broader decisions with less commitment than a typical board of directors. On the other hand, we found that participants mostly trusted our staff and just approved the decisions we were already making because they didn’t have all of the context to really give input. It didn’t seem like it was a meaningful way to engage and mostly seemed like a thing we would write into a grant because every time we mentioned it a funder would perk up in excitement. We felt like we needed to (and continue to need to) increase inclusivity on our actual board of directors. We have had participants and folks with lived experiences of hunger on our board starting with our co-founders and throughout the years, but we needed to look at what systems and culture we had in place to truly increase inclusivity and justice both externally and internally.
To start this process of increasing participant engagement and voice on our board, we took a look at every component
of what it means to be on our board and tried to ensure that we would be able to accommodate participant voice. These included:
- Board meetings
- Participating in activities that advance BFR’s mission and vision
- Strategic Planning
- Decision making
- Professional Development
- Board culture
Here are some of the ways we addressed inclusivity in all of these components.
Showing up to meetings: An essential component of being on our board is showing up to our monthly meetings. Meetings have physical components we need to ensure that folks can manage, or that we are ready to change to allow for inclusivity. We inspected each one: timing, day of week, frequency, duration, location, language, food, access to childcare.
- Timing, food, childcare: We meet outside of traditional working hours because almost everyone on our board works traditional hours. Most of our board members are parents, so we also had to look at how timing affected people with children. We asked basic questions about the meeting time. How long does the meeting last? Is it during dinner? Will there be food available? Do board members have access to childcare? Can we provide it if not? Can the kids come to the meeting? What’s the board culture around children? When we were in person before COVID-19, kids would come sometimes and do their own thing. We made sure we had childcare available if any parent requested it, and made sure there was a line item in the budget for it. We had snacks and drinks available at every meeting. Now that we are on zoom, we are accustomed to parents engaging while also making their dinner for their children, and their children joining in and giving bunny ears to their parents in the background. We welcome interruptions as a part of the culture of the board.
- Location and transportation: Before we moved our meetings to zoom, it was important to ensure that the location was accessible to board members. If they didn’t have their own transportation, we provided rides with other board members. We stayed in central Boulder and discussed our location upon joining the board. Now that we are on zoom, our meetings are more accessible.
- Language: Many of our participants speak Spanish. We wanted to ensure that if Spanish was somebody’s only language, that we had interpretation available for all of our board meetings and translation available for all of our materials. We added this to a line item in our budget so we can immediately be prepared for this. So far, we only have board members who are multilingual (including English) or monolingual English speaking, thus all of our board meetings are in English. We are aware that if we transition into having interpretation, that it will take more time and effort and will need to adjust our meeting agendas to reflect this.
- Stipends: Meetings take time, and far too often organizations that hope to diversify their boards or volunteer committees only want to extract information from participants and other marginalized communities but do not adequately compensate them for their knowledge. When someone is struggling to get by day to day, every bit can help. We stipend meeting participation to anyone who wants it. All board members can opt-in or opt-out depending on their financial needs. All board members can change their opt-in or opt-out status because we know financial needs change.
Board Activities: Board members are responsible for other activities besides coming to meetings. Here’s what we changed to make sure activities that advance the mission and vision of BFR are accessible to more people:
- Fundraising: Many boards have “give or get” policies, and fundraising is an essential component of what it means to be on a board. As an Executive Director, I totally understand why! However, fundraising is probably one of the most intimidating things to board members who do not have experience, regardless of their class backgrounds. We wanted to keep fundraising as a component of being on our board but make it accessible.
- Everyone gives a donation that is meaningful to them. We have never had a “give or get” policy and most of us don’t come from high class backgrounds or are even connected to wealth in Boulder. However, everyone does have something to give, and everyone on our board donates. We say what is meaningful to you is something that will feel good and important to give, but also something that will not break you or stress you out. It’s important for everyone to come up with this number for themselves.
- Everyone participates in fundraising in ways that honor their skills and resources. For some, this may be hosting dinner parties and asking their friends to show up and give money. They may cook food and have large networks of people they know who to ask. For others, this means showing up to those dinner parties and talking about their experiences with BFR. For others, it means sharing posts on social media about our fundraising campaigns, showing up to fundraising events to lend a hand with set up and clean up, or reaching out to businesses to inquire about sponsorship opportunities. Everyone has different skills, ideas and resources and it is all needed to successfully raise the funds we need to operate. It’s all valued and appreciation is expressed to all of the varieties of contributions.
- Projects: We used to have an arbitrary time commitment we asked from board members, everyone contributes 8 hours a month. However, projects and capacity change over time. When stressful things happen in our lives, it can be more stressful for everyone if board members have commitments that they really cannot show up to. We shifted from this time-commitment to a project-based commitment.
- Each board member picks a project that feels most in line with their skills, desires and interests, as well as what the organization needs. They work with the board members and Executive Director to find the project that works best for them. This could be fulfilling a board role, or a project such as board recruitment, qualitative analysis on our food access research, or helping with fundraising events.
- We do not expect each board member to contribute the same amount of time, just ask that board members be reasonable and honest. We expect time capacity to ebb and flow, and keep an open line of communication. We check in about projects and stay accountable to one another. We recently passed an option for board members to take a leave of absence if something comes up that is keeping them from showing up, but they are not ready to leave the board.
- Board Roles: We have a treasurer and two board co-chairs. Having co-chairs enables us to both split the workload but also use the skills different people bring in. For example, one of our co-chairs helps set the agenda and facilitate the meeting, while the other is always silently checking in with folks and organizing spreadsheets.
Strategic Planning: We are in the middle of strategic planning currently. In the past, we used to have an all day (or all-weekend) retreat that board members had to participate in. This made it hard for folks who couldn’t take that much time off all at once. Now, we are working with strategic planning consultants to spread the workload over a year. We have long meetings on zoom, but they are pre-scheduled way ahead of time and not all day. We provide stipends for these meetings as well. We are also centering staff and participants (program participants who are not on the board) in every step along the way. The entire process turns the power structure upside down, so board members play a helpful role, but not the only role.
Decision Making and Professional Development: Board members make important decisions for the organization as a whole. While it’s amazing to give more people a voice in making these decisions, it’s not fair to them or the organization, if they are not fully informed about the decisions they are making. This means understanding all of the components of the decision. When decisions come on the agenda, we make sure there is space to ask questions about all of the background information, the potential consequences of the different ways the decision could go, and how to read and understand the information. We also see engaging on the board as a professional development opportunity for board members. Most of our board members haven’t previously served on boards and are interested in learning more, so we support that. For example, we have pre-recorded videos looking at our budget and explaining not just different line items, but budget theory (and how BFR typically budgets), financial documents and what they are saying. We offer opportunities for outside workshops and trainings for board members also.
Onboarding: We provide a booklet of resources to board members when they are onboarded. We go over these resources at a board member orientation and give new board members time to sit with all of the materials. We intentionally recruit and onboard new board members in clusters, so that one person is not alone figuring it out by themselves. We provide space in the first board meeting with new members to have longer introductions, Q&A for each item and Q&A overall. We also created a buddy-system so that board members could have other seasoned board members they can go to for questions, besides the board co-chairs. We have existing board members schedule calls and check-ins to build relationships with new board members.
Culture: Increasing diversity without true inclusion often causes harm in organizations. It’s important to diversify a board and bring in new perspectives, especially those most closely linked to the work. But often when a board starts off on this journey, they haven’t done the work of looking at their culture, which unfortunately, leads to these new folks being burdened with the task of carving out a more inclusive space for themselves, and being harmed along the way. It’s not going to be perfect. As adrienne maree brown says, “we learn to love by loving.” We learn to be accountable to people by messing up and making mistakes, and then apologizing and changing our behavior. Our goal is to minimize harm, which takes every board member being willing to show up and look at the spaces inside of themselves that cause harm. This is uncomfortable, but it’s necessary to have a healthy culture. Trust is built through this process. If a new board member experiences harm and they bring it up, that means they trust the board to do something with that feedback, and it’s important for all of the individuals involved to be accountable to that, to create the space for feedback, to hear it and change the behavior, and to check in about progress towards minimizing harm. This work takes time, intention and emotional energy, and so both staff and board members need to be dedicated to that work. This is harder than any article can suggest. It’s especially hard for nonprofit workers who are overwhelmed and burnt out. Creating spaces of minimizing harm also means making sure there is time and space in ourselves to do this emotional work outside of work.
Here are some things we have done, and are continually doing, to improve our culture:
- We engage in White Supremacy Culture reflections: Our staff has gone deep into these to see how White Supremacy Culture shows up in ourselves and in our organization. We share these reflections across our multiracial staff team. Our board has not done as much work around them, but does reference them and read about them.
- We share and discuss readings on different board cultures: We are engaging in conversations around restructuring our board to make sure it serves the organization best. This means looking at articles that criticize traditional board structures and power-hoarding, and discussing them and what is right for us and for BFR.
- Our board trusts our staff: Instead of having a board that gives direction to staff, it’s the other way around. Our board is very open to staff direction, because staff is working every day on this work. Our staff takes direction from participants, because that is deeply embedded in our values. Having a board that primarily listens instead of directs is important. Everyone has value and ideas, but our board doesn’t micromanage or dictate what needs to be done.
- We respect and appreciate differences: We learn about cultural differences by getting people together that come from different cultural backgrounds. Most of us don’t know what we do that is culturally innate that others may not connect with. We encourage folks to speak up about different cultural needs, and celebrate and share our differences with one another. If those differences cause conflict, we also have to be willing to lean into those.
- We laugh a lot and have fun: I won’t even share our secrets! But I will say, some of our board members say this meeting is the most fun one they have all month. It’s important to get to the work, but how we do this work and who we do this work with, is just as (if not more) important. What we do externally (create a culture of belonging through food) we also have to do internally. I’ve heard Executive Directors struggle with their board, and I have been there before. But we’ve built this board intentionally and I can honestly say I love each and every one of our board members and they not only support the work but are my friends and comrades in this fight for justice.
We have done a lot, but we still have a lot of places to grow. For example, in the case of current diversity numbers, we have a board of eight people and two are participants and four are people of color. But we don’t have any Black or Indigenous board members, board members with physical disabilities, and board members who don’t speak English. We are primarily a young and able-bodied board.
We also mess up. Assumptions are made, often in self-criticism, about not doing enough. That can get projected out onto others. We have to be accountable to that harm and retrain our brains to value all types of engagement. We have to remember that we are also our own worst critics, and we are actually doing really well.
Creating an inclusive board is about having a healthy organization that ultimately is focused on the mission and vision and unique theory of change of our organization. Diversity is a part of inclusion. Inclusion is a part of justice. Flipping charity on its head to truly value diverse board member perspectives, and not just tokenize diverse bodies, takes time, emotional energy and money. Ultimately, it’s worth it because it works better for everyone. People with lived experiences of the problems we are trying to solve know what they need most. It’s for community, by community, which also creates a culture of belonging and worth, ultimately increasing the health and wellbeing of the broader organization.