Wednesday, April 17, 2024

“Serving on a nonprofit board.”

That idea sounds totally out of reach for many Cambridge residents – and, indeed, it’s often hard to gain access to board opportunities, particularly for those who aren’t well-connected, well-to-do or both. (Nonprofits typically expect board members to “give or get” significant funds for their organizations.)

Today, 78 percent of board members are white, according to the national study “Leading with Intent” by BoardSource. But the populations nonprofits serve are highly diverse and, generally speaking, low-income. That mismatch can lead to real problems, with nonprofit boards tending to:

  • Focus on fundraising at the expense of other essential responsibilities,
  • Give knowledge of specific program expertise lower priority in recruiting members, and
  • Lack the ability to establish trust directly with the communities they serve. (True of about half of nonprofit boards, according to the same study.)

Cambridge aspires to do better.

We’re writing as two local organizations working with the Cambridge nonprofit community that are excited to reimagine the institution of the nonprofit board – the Cambridge Nonprofit Coalition and Cambridge Volunteer Clearinghouse.

We love the idea that a board can evolve to move the communities our organizations serve closer to the center of decision-making and strategy development. Reengineering boards this way isn’t just idealistic; as boards start to look more like the communities they serve and better understand their lived experiences, they will also help nonprofits become more effective in their missions.

One of the most influential proponents of this new way of thinking is Vu Le, a rock star of the nonprofit world with decades of social justice thought leadership and advocacy and the author of the brilliant, funny, and wise blog Nonprofit AF.

We’re excited to bring Le in for a conversation called, appropriately, “Reimagining Boards: A conversation with Vu Le” on March 10 as part of “Cambridge Serves,” an annual public conversation about nonprofits, volunteerism and equity in Cambridge that CNC and CVC co-host.

In Le’s view, a community-centered board is an achievable goal. For that reason, our local nonprofit leaders are lining up to spend this precious time with him. More than 100 people have already bought tickets, and we expect another 100-plus to be in the audience. That’s why we’re writing: to share our collective optimism in Cambridge’s nonprofit sector and its capacity for change.

We hope that more residents will get involved in causes they care about as board members – we believe you’ll find a sector that is making strides in better valuing all contributions, particularly the assets of lived experience and local program expertise.

We invite everyone in the Cambridge community to join us for an engaging exploration of this crucially important topic.

Elena Sokolow-Kaufman, Cambridge Nonprofit Coalition

Laurie Rothstein, Cambridge Volunteer Clearinghouse