We’re hiring! If you’ve always wanted to help build strong organizations and communities, our Standards for Excellence Director position just might be for you. Learn more here!

Board Governance | May 10, 2024

Cultivating Belonging: One Organization’s Story

Guest Blog Author: Susan Loucks (Principal, Susan Loucks Consulting | Member, PANO’s Consultant Collaborative | Connect on LinkedIn)


As a consultant I’ve heard about the challenges from both sides – that is, both nonprofit staff and nonprofit board members.  I’ve talked to organizations that are frustrated when they invest in bringing on board talent representing important new perspectives, only to have those people drop off at the end of their first year. I’ve heard from people who want to make change but feel their board service isn’t allowing them to stretch their wings (or even open their mouths). More recently I heard of a neighborhood improvement organization in Philadelphia – Historic Fair Hill. This organization has brought on 6 new board members in the last 2 years: 5 people of color, 3 from the neighborhood, 1 who went through their programs – while still creating meaningful engagement and generating significant satisfaction.  Here’s a story, I thought, that needs to be shared!

Kerry Roeder (executive director since 2022), fielded my questions. As she explained how they’re cultivating a sense of belonging, it was clear it wasn’t through “accommodations” in the sense of deviations from normal. If change was in line with their values, they were ready to re-define normal. That definition begins with a needs-assessment survey for all new board members, covering everything from best meeting times and childcare needs to learning styles. Then, if the group sees a mismatch between needs and the existing culture, they follow through with change – for example, when their board reached a critical mass of working as opposed to retired people, they moved the board meetings to later in the evening (and started offering pizza!).

I was curious how the organization handled onboarding and board education. Historic Fair Hill schedules an introductory session for new members, but instead of assuming it’s an opportunity to bring them up to speed, their primary goal is to emphasize that the organization is happy to have them. Staff introduce themselves and their programs but are clear that there’s time to learn the details, it’s okay to forget, and it’s always appropriate to have questions. New members are paired with a board buddy (chosen based on some shared point of connection by the director and board chair) who invites them to lunch or touches in with them before their first meeting as well as other times throughout the initial year. That way, there is always someone who can greet them personally and sit next to them in a critical moment.

Instead of targeting new members, ongoing board education is integrated into the year’s agenda, and presented for everyone. In the early part of the year, they’ll go over their consensus decision-making style, making sure everyone understands how to register objections and agreement. Other topics include understanding financial documents and fundraising (what it looks like, roles for both board and staff). They neither assume new board members don’t know nor that more seasoned board members remember, careful to respect everyone’s experience.

The organization is also deliberate about creating opportunities for relationship-building, inside and outside. Potential board members are identified with the help of other local organizations – reinforcing those partnerships as well as providing initial vetting for governance-appropriate candidates. Board members build relationships with each other during program field trips, at scheduled socials, and even in chatting during organized carpooling. The more comfortable people feel with each other and the more they feel part of the bigger organizational dynamic, the more likely they will be to freely share their gifts and opinions.

“It comes down to how you define leadership” Kerry said, recognizing the wellspring they’ve been tapping. “A big part of how I try to approach work with everyone – kids, staff, board, neighbors – is making sure people feel seen, heard, and valued.”  If people are given ample and varied opportunities for engagement and trust that their opinions truly matter, leadership will emerge every place the organization touches. A new board member may become a board buddy for someone else in the following year or stretch into a new task, confident they will be supported. Not everyone is suited for or desires engagement with governance, but the same organizational value of participation extends into programming – neighbors are asked what they want to learn and what they can teach. With those ideas in hand, Historic Fair Hill has identified (and paid) locals to lead classes in nutrition, jewelry-making, tai chi…the list goes on! The virtuous cycle of leadership development and participation continues as neighborhood leaders join the staff, growing into roles with increasingly complex responsibilities.

While it’s compelling to hear the “how”, Kerry repeatedly returns to the why, the reason each of those ideas emerged: the fundamental intentions behind them. Everyone is clear that engaging the neighborhood is their ongoing mission. Everyone is bought in to an organization where each voice matters – indeed, developing that kind of culture was a goal in their strategic plan. When any group is in high alignment, hearts as well as minds, this kind of result comes more naturally. It’s a given that people will be motivated to come up with ideas, try them out, and keep the ones that are working. Right now, the first-year satisfaction survey for new board members (with questions including “Do you feel that your voice is heard, respected, and valued during meetings?”, “Do you feel that you have the support you need to fully participate on the board?”) shows they’re doing a lot right!

In the future, Historic Fair Hill’s needs will undoubtedly change. Thankfully, due to their investments in a positive culture of shared contribution, they’ll be able to approach those changes with trust and a growing capacity to work it out together.


Wishing your group had more alignment, or could develop a more positive culture? You might consider enlisting support, guidance, and/or expertise from a trusted external consultant. This guest blog post was authored by a member of PANO’s Consultant Collaborative. Susan Loucks, Principal of Susan Loucks Consulting, works with organizations that are interested in creating as good a world on the inside of their organizations as they are striving to build on the outside. Click here to learn more about Susan and click here to learn how the Consultant Collaborative can help take your mission to the next level!


Related Posts

10 Board Habits to Kick
Read More »
Engaging the Board as a Catalyst for Change
Read More »
Best Practices in Board Recruitment
Read More »

Need some nonprofit help?
Become a PANO member today.

Become A Member