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Can a Smaller Board Bring in More People (Like You)?

Dear PEPS Community,

The PEPS Board is trying an experiment.

Like many nonprofit boards, we’ve been asking ourselves how the board is contributing, or not, to the organization’s commitment to equity, and whether it’s possible to disrupt the fundamentally archaic and toxic nature of the Board structure.

In taking a good, hard look at what was working with the PEPS board structure, and what was not, we set out to reimagine a model that would:

Engage a broad group of supporters
in ways that make the best use of their gifts,
start from trust rather than scarcity
to move decision-making power closer to those affected,
and give PEPS more than it takes.

In re-imagining what the board structure could be for PEPS, we’ve decided to shift from a one-size-fits-all board (which, in fact was not fitting anyone) to a smaller Governance Board and Finance Committee paired with a larger Advisors & Ambassadors Network.

With a commitment to be bold, experiment, and refuse to do things just because they had always been done that way, we clarified that the role of the Governance Board is to support PEPS staff, as well as provide transparency for supporters and funders through oversight of the Executive Director, thought partnership on strategy and direction, ambassadorship, fiduciary oversight and crisis management.

We acknowledged that despite having amazing folks on our Board, there are inherent problematic power dynamics with the structure of non-profit Boards. This line from Vu Le’s piece The default nonprofit board model is archaic and toxic; let’s try to some new models captures the challenge:

“Volunteers who barely know one another, see one percent of the work, often don’t reflect the communities we serve, and who may have little to no experience running nonprofits, [are] given vast power to supervise leadership and determine values, policies, and practices.”

Pivoting with intention

Turning this on its head, the PEPS Board now explicitly prioritizes a shared decision-making process with staff and proactively looks for ways to shift power to staff. We meet quarterly instead of monthly, recognizing that what best serves PEPS is a less resource-intense Board focused on the core governance role PEPS needs. Part of our work is to regularly review our actions and functions through an equity lens.

While the small Board focuses on governance, the Advisors & Ambassadors Network will be a broad, diverse, and fluid group of community members. Subject-matter experts will advise staff on specific needs like HR, fundraising, legal, DEI, medical, and tech. Relationship-builders will make connections to partners or donors and serve as table captains at our annual community benefit.

None of this sounds revolutionary. But the underlying intent—the trust-based, power-shifting, best-fit culture—is what’s new.

This is not the first step on our journey toward more equitable practices. Despite these shifts, the underlying board structure remained the same. And some problems kept persisting. Even though we were following recommended good governance practices, we needed to take a deeper look.

  • First, several women of color, experienced in DEI, left the board before their terms were up. Yet they remained connected to PEPS, doing specific work that they wanted to be doing. They just weren’t interested in all of the general things that a one-size-fits-all board is responsible for. The structure was squeezing out critical voices. And all board members said they felt more useful when contributing their expertise to specific projects.
  • Second, a lot of staff and board energy was going toward work that sustained a well-oiled 12- to 14-person board—work that didn’t directly benefit PEPS staff. Board recruitment. Board engagement. Board presentations. Officer roles were such a heavy lift that people with full-time jobs (and, usually, kids) eyed them warily. Meetings needed to be less performative, more spacious, so that productive and sometimes uncomfortable equity conversations weren’t continually cut off. Staff updates to the board could be streamlined, too, in a format that helped staff track their own work towards our strategic direction.
  • Third, our fundraising focus limited who felt comfortable joining the board. There’s nothing equitable about who has money and connections. What if we separated fundraising from the board governance? This felt simultaneously scary, and like a luxury to even ask the question because PEPS has such a strong staff.
  • Fourth, PEPS had long wanted avenues to engage potential advisers, board alumni, partners, and our broader community—people willing to bring broader and more diverse community perspectives and expertise outside of board service.

One board retreat, a dozen work-group meetings, two facilitated board meetings, and one risk-mitigation spreadsheet later, the PEPS board had voted in a new structure.

A small Governance Board of five or seven people with the freedom to contract and expand organically as talented new Board members were identified and others rolled off their terms. A Finance Committee that includes community members. And a large, staff-led Advisors & Ambassadors Network.

People could engage in more than one way. The structure could embrace people’s gifts rather than assume one-size-fits-all—the heart of inclusion. And, importantly, PEPS staff could simultaneously be closer to the decisions that impact them.

What we’ve learned so far

Six months into this experiment, we’ve seen some pros and cons.

For staff:
▸ Quarterly board meetings are a lot less work than monthly board meetings, freeing space for mission-driven work.
▸ Thought partnership feels less performative: based more on conversation about what’s arising than the old Q&A after a packed PowerPoint presentation.
▸ The trust-based approach between board and staff is feeling really good.

For board members:
▸ The workload is more sustainable, inviting board members of more varied backgrounds and resources.
▸ Specific projects keep each board member moving forward with a sense of ownership. This is requiring more frequent progress check-ins from the board chair, but less work over all.
▸ We’re still figuring out what new recruits will need to fit into this looser structure.

One critical thing we’re feeling the loss of, in moving from monthly to bimonthly and then quarterly meetings, is connection. The mission of PEPS is, of course, connection. And feeling connected to the organization makes for good governance, especially if a crisis were to arise. So we’ve recently decided to start with optional monthly coffee meetups, no agenda or minutes—just connection and shared thought partnership on whatever is relevant in the moment. Attending monthly finance-committee meetings is another avenue for Board members to stay more connected to the daily work of PEPS.

We’ll keep adjusting as we go.

We’ve stripped down our board—not to the minimum legal requirements, as some nonprofits are experimenting with, but minimalist to what PEPS needs from its Board. We’re on high alert for equitable practices.

That will help us see what really needs to be added back in.

And we hope that, now, there’s a place for you.

We want to express gratitude to the many PEPS Board members, past and present who have given time, talent and financial support to PEPS and contributed to reimagining the Board. We wouldn’t be here without each and every one of you.

In community,

, Board President
, Board Secretary

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