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Experiments With Board Structure

How PEPS is Attempting to Make a Good Board Better — Experiments With Board Structure

I know bad boards. As a coach to nonprofits and their boards around the world, I’ve seen the full range. When I joined the board of PEPS in 2019, I was relieved to find all the markers of a good board: smart people deeply committed to the mission, wanting to make a difference, following the recommended practices for good governance. PEPS staff and board both were in the midst of a yearslong journey to center equity in its programs, internal practices, learning, recruiting, and fundraising. And they still are.

But we hadn’t addressed one almost invisible issue: the board structure itself.

What would it mean to operationalize an equity focus in the very structure of the board?

Boards are given (or have taken) wide decision-making power, but they are usually the furthest from the work and the least impacted by their decisions. The larger the board, the more resources it takes for both board and staff leadership to maintain it. Nonprofit thought leader Vu Le calls this default board structure “archaic and toxic.”

We wanted a structure that would be more functional for PEPS staff so that they could focus their energy on the needs of the community, and one that would be more sustainable for board members, who often are juggling work, parenting, and other commitments.

In 2021, through a participatory process engaging the PEPS leadership team and the board, we landed on a smaller, more nimble board structure focused on a specific set of governance functions rather than the traditional dynamic that centers board members’ needs.

We explicitly acknowledged that the decisions made by the board are limited to a few specific areas (such as review of the Executive Director) and that the principal role of the board is to support the organization in difficult moments while being available for thought partnership on key topics.

Our guiding principles:

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 2022, we embarked on implementing our new streamlined board structure. While it didn’t feel revolutionary to move to a trust-based approach that sought to give PEPS more than it takes, there also was no blueprint for what we were trying to do. So we committed to remain alert and adjust along the way.

As 2023 Board President, I want to share what we’ve learned so far, both with the PEPS community and with any nonprofit board members who may be exploring the same questions.

What did PEPS accomplish in the first year of the new board structure?

First and foremost, we shifted our mindset:

  • We now interrogate whether we really need to do something—like have the Executive Director present the same report to both the finance committee and the full board—or whether we’re just falling into old habits.
  • When board members feel insecure that maybe we should be doing more, we ask ourselves if PEPS needs us or if we are looking to engage in what is so often the busy work of board service.
  • Likewise, we ask ourselves if staff would be responding to board members’ whims rather than focused on the organization’s core work of supporting parents. Take a board request for information, for example: is gathering and tracking that information also useful to staff?

Then we began simplifying processes to better align with the simpler structure:

  • We communicated about the change in the board structure” through our letter Can a smaller board bring in more people (like you)?
  • We revamped our board recruitment practices, which used to involve a massive demographics matrix and monthslong interview process. When we recently recruited new board members, the Executive Director and senior leadership team were equal partners in the vetting discussion, since they are the ones most affected by the board composition.
  • We streamlined and strengthened the performance review process for the PEPS Executive Director, revising multi-page performance surveys to five open-ended reflective questions. The questions are completed by the Executive Director, all PEPS staff (not only the leadership team as in prior years), a subset of community partners, and all board members. The board’s role is then to identify themes within the feedback, make recommendations for the Executive Director, and solidify commitments for the board for the following year. The revamped process better enables the Executive Director to feel seen, motivated, and encouraged to continue to grow in new areas.

What have we learned a year into our new structure?

Feedback from board members and the PEPS Executive Director indicates that the new board structure:

  • feels more effective and right-sized;
  • is less time-consuming and performative for both staff and board; and
  • brings greater clarity to board members on what they should individually be doing throughout the year (via the assignment of special projects, such as revamping the Executive Director performance evaluation process).

Our biggest lesson learned was that while reducing the frequency of board meetings from monthly to quarterly did not result in a loss of productivity, it did lead to board members feeling less informed about and connected to PEPS. We took a few actions to counteract this:

  • We started hosting our quarterly board meetings in person. As we planned for 2023, we scheduled board meetings directly after key Finance Committee meetings so board members can easily attend both.
  • Myself and Dana Guy, Executive Director of PEPS, sought out board members for informal Zoom calls, coffee meetings or walks for thought partnership.
  • We transitioned our regular Executive Director-President check-ins to open Board/Executive Director Thought Partnership meetings
  • Board members were encouraged to attend monthly Finance Committee meetings (an existing space where the details of what is happening at PEPS are discussed through a financial lens).

And finally, based on what we’re seeing so far under the new board structure, we set goals for the board in 2023:

  • Find the most accessible mechanisms for board members to stay connected to PEPS while also not being a burden or extra work for staff. Leverage existing spaces for the board to engage with PEPS rather than creating additional meetings.
  • Recruit and onboard three new board members.
  • Identify efficient strategies for onboarding and integrating new board members.

As we settle into the second year of the new PEPS board structure, we’re excited to continue to learn how we can best support parents and caregivers in our community by being a board that serves PEPS.


Rebecca Koladycz
PEPS Board President

P.S. We’d love for you to join us! Find out how to apply for the PEPS Board.

Or, to advise PEPS staff about specific strategic areas on a project basis, read more about the new Advisors & Ambassadors Network. Send questions to PEPS Executive Director Dana Guy at .

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