Aligning Internal and External Missions: The Social Impact Board's Role in Navigating DE&I

DEIDiversity & CultureSocial ImpactBoard and CEO AdvisoryBoard Director and Chair SearchDiversity, Equity, and Inclusion Advisory
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October 23, 2023
7 min read
DEIDiversity & CultureSocial ImpactBoard and CEO AdvisoryBoard Director and Chair SearchDiversity, Equity, and Inclusion Advisory
Executive Summary
Social impact boards must examine their composition and culture to realize a DEI strategy that aligns their internal and external missions.


When it comes to the diversity, equity, and inclusivity (DE&I) of leadership teams and cultures, social impact organizations are held to increasing expectations and pressures—particularly at the board level. These expectations require boards to examine their own composition and culture, so as to create a DE&I strategy that truly aligns the internal and external missions of social impact organizations.


Embodying organizational values to deliver on the mission


Risks of failing to embody values

  • Misunderstandings and tension between board and staff
  • Inability to attract and retain top talent
  • Loss of institutional knowledge and social/cultural capital
  • Reduced ability to fulfill organization’s mission

In our work with leading social impact organizations, Russell Reynolds Associates sees firsthand the ways in which leadership teams and boards benefit from activating diversity of thought, backgrounds, and experiences within an inclusive and equitable workplace.

When these efforts are successful, they can be transformative for the organization and its people. When they fail to authentically embody the stated values of the organization, they can further erode trust in the organization’s leadership and their commitment to its mission.

Importantly, this failure can lead to tensions that impact the organization’s ability to fulfill its mission. Tensions may manifest in board/staff misunderstandings, staff frustrations, and reputational damage for the organization. Gaps between values and embodiment of those values across the organization also impact the organization’s ability to attract and retain talent, which may lead to loss of institutional knowledge and social and cultural capital to the detriment of the mission.


Maximizing the benefits of diverse boards: the who and the how

Ultimately, accountability for aligning what the organization says it values and what it actually does begins and ends with the board. Whether it’s hiring the chief executive or setting the “tone at the top” that informs the organizational culture, the board is the final line of defense for ensuring that an organization’s strategy is aligned with its values.

For many social impact organizations, ensuring demographic diversity within their board and leadership team – whether in terms of race, ethnicity or other social identity groups  – has become a priority to ensure this alignment. However, representational considerations cannot be pursued without confirming board members also embody organizational values themselves.

The social impact sector has also been increasingly focused on board representation that incorporates the voices of those the organization serves, particularly grantees in philanthropic organizations. These efforts are important to keep social impact organizations relevant, impactful, and respectful of the communities they serve.

Introducing these various aspects of diversity inevitably impacts how social impact boards operate, often in ways that challenge existing cultural and social norms. Therefore, it is important for social impact boards to be intentional about both their recruitment process and board operations, in order to maximize the benefit of the diverse perspectives, experiences, and expertise.

To help social impact boards navigate these challenges, we gathered the following market insights and recommendations around both the recruitment process and how boards are effectively centering DE&I in their approaches.


Recruitment (the who)


The two types of DE&I expertise to prioritize in board recruitment

  1. Experience navigating cultural and legal DE&I terrains

  2. Experience ensuring DE&I strategy is consistent with the organization’s mission

To build a board with an intentional DE&I emphasis, organizations must instill rigor into the director identification, assessment, and selection process.  Governance and Nominations Committee members bear the responsibility for identifying new board members, with some engaging in a rigorous process to ensure the board includes expertise in the domains relevant to the organization’s strategy, whether that be development, finance, or programmatic expertise. But few boards are focused on finding board members with experience to both help the organization navigate the cultural and legal DE&I terrains and ensure its overall DE&I strategy is consistent with the mission.

Chief DE&I officers (CDEIO) often bring this expertise. CDEIOs are most likely to have experience navigating both the cultural and legal DE&I terrains, which can sometimes stand at cross purposes. Chief DE&I officers who have had responsibilities for both external work (e.g., community outreach, programmatic guidance aimed at the mission of the organization) and internal work (e.g., talent management, culture building, and recruiting) are ideal candidates for boards.

In addition to understanding the functional DE&I expertise needed, it’s also important to assess board candidates for their ability to strategically and holistically link DE&I values and the mission of the organization. By intentionally recruiting directors with this experience, the board can be strong partners with executive leadership and staff to drive DE&I throughout the organization. Importantly, every board candidate should be assessed on their ability to link DE&I to the organization’s mission—not just those with functional DE&I expertise.

Board member assessments should also include behavioral commitments to DE&I, which may give an indication of alignment between values and mission. For example, the concept of inclusive leadership has been helpful in framing the skillsets needed to drive DE&I at an organizational level.

As new board members are selected, board composition can be reviewed utilizing a skills and experiences matrix to ensure all organizational priorities are included, especially DE&I. Within that matrix, it’s crucial to underscore that demographic diversity is just one part of the equation for embodying DE&I values. It’s equally important for directors to bring the expertise and experience needed to advise social impact organizations on leveraging diversity, equity and inclusion to drive impact.

By focusing on expertise and experience, social impact organizations can move away from tokenizing board members based on their lived experiences as a member of a particular demographic group, instead prioritizing the strategic thinking needed to guide them at a governance level.


Case study: Evolving the board to support a strategy inflection point

A $15M global public health NGO faced a significant inflection point when its founder’s retirement coincided with a strategic and operational pivot to new geographies. While the majority of staff and board were based in North America, their work largely happened in other regions. Recognizing this, the board prioritized recruiting directors who understood these new regions, and could bring existing networks and insights on how their work would resonate locally. This resulted in the appointment of two new directors who had experience translating global NGO approaches into local contexts, and who could speak to the specific cultural nuances of each market. Importantly, candidates were not simply assessed for their ability to represent a specific demographic group, but rather for their ability to translate their professional experiences in specific regions into strategic insights for the organization.


Board Effectiveness (the how)

Once new board members join, the overall dynamic needs to be re-examined to be truly effective at leveraging all available skills and experiences. Cultural—and often unspoken—norms that longstanding board members may take for granted should be surfaced and reconsidered to create a new set of norms that benefit everyone.

While organizations may think simply onboarding new board members is sufficient, facilitating a team effectiveness experience for the entire board may be more beneficial for everyone. We recommend having an external facilitator gather information (via surveys, interviews, focus groups, etc.) on the board’s existing cultural norms and operating behaviors, then compare those to the new members’ approaches, in order identify areas of divergence and define new norms for the collective group.

Following the board assessment, an alignment session will be key to examining what needs to be modified in the new configuration. Conversations like this require board members to acknowledge that adaptability is vital when integrating new board members, particularly those who bring different life experiences and expertise. In an environment where DE&I is prioritized, board assimilation is counterproductive. Differences should be embraced, not ignored.

New operating norms and intentional relationship building among board members can arise out of this process. For example, board members who share a social network will need to identify new socializing opportunities that are mindful of the varied experiences of next generation board members, particularly when there are socioeconomic differences.

In addition to relationship building, board conversations that may have historically been personality or donor-driven will need new communication norms to ensure that a range of perspectives are shared and weighted in decision-making. Most importantly, board buy-in on new operating norms require shared accountability for adhering to those norms.


Case study: Embodying values at a social change philanthropy

A $30M funder focused on community organizing for social justice recognized that, to deliver on its mission to be a laboratory for social change, they needed to re-consider their leadership structure power dynamics. Originally comprised of the organization’s co-founders and key donors, the board reassessed its composition from the perspective of both demographic markers and grantee representation, and began prioritizing new director appointments to fill the gaps in stakeholder representation.

Since many of the new appointees were joining during the pandemic and would miss opportunities for critical in-person relationship building, the board facilitated an inclusive leadership session to get to know each person and their approach to leadership. Importantly, this exercise engaged the entire board at a deeper level than their historical onboarding and board-gathering initiatives. Both legacy and new board members engaged in open dialogue around how they could intentionally build relationships with each other, rather than relying on prior social engagements from pre-existing relationships. The variety of perspectives were seen as assets, rather than conflicting that needed to be managed.


Putting it together: RRA recommendations for social impact board chairs

While each organization will face its own particular challenges and opportunities around ensuring their board authentically embodies the organization’s stated DE&I values, we recommend board chairs consider the following practices:

  1. Recognize and reflect back to fellow board members on the importance of authentically embodying the organization’s stated DE&I values and understanding how these holistically connect to the mission (via both internal and external work).

  2. Beyond representational diversity, prioritize two types of DE&I expertise in board recruitment: 1) experience navigating the cultural and legal DE&I terrains and 2) experience ensuring DE&I strategy is consistent with the mission.

  3. Instead of ad hoc onboarding for new board members, coordinate a team effectiveness experience for the full board that explicitly acknowledges that adaptability is vital to the integration of new board members. In tandem, operating norms must evolve alongside the composition of the board.  Rather than recruiting one new director at a time, consider recruiting in cohorts so the burden of evolution does not rest solely on one individual.