Beyond Operations: Elevating Board Governance with an Equity Lens

Cultural Competency, DEI

Recently, I co-facilitated a nonprofit board retreat for the team at Moveable Feast, where we spent the morning integrating an equity lens into the organization’s strategic priorities. This experience illuminated the profound difference between boards that merely discuss equity and those that actively embed it into their strategic planning. The willingness of this particular group to delve deep into their strategic plan and question, “What is my role as a board member in actualizing these priorities equitably?” was inspiring and indicative of the transformative potential of such discussions.

Over the years, I’ve observed a recurring theme: boards genuinely desire to embrace equity but often grapple with translating this intention into effective governance. While many boards articulate a commitment to equity in their strategic thinking, lacking a tangible framework to guide their efforts is a common hurdle. Moreover, even when an equity lens is adopted, the challenge often shifts towards a preoccupation with day-to-day operations rather than focusing on governance that supports the mission and staff.

The Heart of DEI in Board Governance

DEI transcends mere discussion; it’s about embedding these values into an organization’s core. When boards authentically integrate these principles, they move beyond attempts to enhance their organization’s image to authentically living out their values, deepening their impact, and placing equity at the forefront of their actions. This commitment strengthens the organization’s resilience and broadens its influence, marking the beginning of a crucial transformation that starts with governance.

Despite the best intentions, boards can become mired in the minutiae of daily operations, a tendency that can obscure their role in shaping the organization’s strategic future. This is particularly true in the realm of DEI efforts, where the distinction between the responsibilities of the board and those of the staff is critical. A shift towards visionary governance, characterized by the active application of an equity lens, is essential for boards. This approach ensures that decisions are made with a comprehensive understanding of their diverse impacts, fostering a governance model that champions inclusivity at every turn.

A Blueprint for Applying an Equity Lens

To truly integrate equity into governance, we must adopt strategies that not only clarify the board’s role in contrast to that of the staff but also ensure equity is a central pillar of the organization’s mission and strategic priorities. Here are a few distinctions that have been meaningful in my work:

  • Centering Equitable Decision-Making While staff members are tasked with executing programs within established frameworks, boards are uniquely responsible for integrating equitable decision-making into the heart of the organization’s mission. This critical role involves directing resources toward initiatives that dismantle barriers for historically marginalized communities, thereby positioning equity as a central pillar of the organization’s objectives.
  • Diverse Board Composition The diversity of a board that reflects the fullness of the community enhances the organization’s governance by complementing the insights of staff with a wide array of perspectives. This synergy between board and staff enriches decision-making processes, ensuring strategies are developed with a comprehensive appreciation for inclusivity and equity from various angles.
  • Equity in Fiduciary Responsibility Boards play a distinct role in ensuring that the organization’s resources are managed, emphasizing inclusivity. This commitment goes beyond the ongoing financial oversight conducted by staff. By prioritizing equity in the management of resources, boards establish benchmarks for how the organization’s assets bolster its dedication to equitable practices.
  • Policy and Practice Review Staff members are responsible for the day-to-day application of policies, but the board must guarantee these policies undergo regular evaluations and adjustments through an equity lens. This oversight at the governance level is crucial for preventing unintentional exclusion or marginalization, ensuring that operational practices are in harmony with the organization’s goals for equity.
  • DEI Training for Board Members Unlike the staff’s practical training focused on daily DEI implementation and interactions, board members have the opportunity to engage in DEI training designed to guide the organization’s overarching strategic direction towards equity. This specialized training empowers board members to make informed decisions that influence the organization’s culture and strategic priorities in alignment with DEI principles.
  • Community Engagement The board’s commitment to engaging with a diverse range of community voices extends beyond the operational interactions typically managed by staff, ensuring the organization’s strategic direction is profoundly connected to the community it aims to serve. This engagement underscores the board’s unique role in fostering a governance model that is both responsive and accountable to community needs and aspirations.

Implementing These Strategies in Practice

By prioritizing equitable decision-making and embedding it within the organization’s strategic framework, boards play a pivotal role in transitioning from perpetuating systemic inequities to actively challenging them. This strategic positioning, unique to the board’s role, ensures that equity is a driving force behind the organization’s mission and resource allocation.

Moreover, the board’s commitment to integrating these equity-focused strategies into their governance practices is crucial for transforming their organizations. This transformation, driven by the board’s unique strategic and fiduciary responsibilities, ensures that equity is not an operational afterthought but a fundamental aspect of the organization’s mission, strategic priorities, and governance, fostering a more inclusive, equitable, and impactful future.


We invite boards to reflect on their practices and consider how an equity lens could revolutionize their governance. For those ready to embark on this journey, Culture Principles offers the guidance and support needed to navigate this transformative process.

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