Bringing your Board on board in Systems Leadership

Special to the Philanthropy Journal

By Jenna Barnes and Lindsay Goolsby

As a land-grant university, NC State is committed to providing students hands-on, highly-engaged learning opportunities AND to providing research that is of direct, practical use to the fields we work in. Philanthropy Journal proudly presents the latest in a series of evidence-based resource articles developed by Dr. Amanda J. Stewart‘s masters level Management of Nonprofit Organizations classes. These articles represent a perfect overlap of engaged learning and practical research.

Nonprofits often have a gap between intentions and outcomes, which can lead to costly inefficiencies and a lack of effectiveness.[1] To narrow this gap, nonprofit organizations and foundations have started taking a systems change approach in order to achieve their organizational goals and have a broader impact.

Systems change focuses on addressing the larger scope of policy, relationships, and context of social challenges to create sustainable positive impact on a broader scale.[2] Consider, for example, the scope and reach of promoting child and family wellbeing through a single parenting support intervention versus a systems approach that convenes family serving agencies in a common vision; takes on policy initiatives that impact parent support; and raises community awareness about what kids need to grow up healthy and safe.

For successful systems change, leadership in a nonprofit must be able to implement a systems-based approach for their organization. Leadership from a systems-based approach is able to navigate the “tension between vision and reality.”[3] These leaders see the 10,000 foot view of the system in which their organization operates, yet are also able to engage stakeholders to see and share in this vision. They build partnerships across sectors and maintain motivation and optimism when challenges arise.[1,3]

Systems leadership is critical for nonprofit boards and executives working on complex issues, yet research[4] has shown that most nonprofit boards are largely ineffective in helping their organizations succeed. This may be due in part to board members’ lack of depth of knowledge and engagement in the organization. [5] Beyond the basics of board development in establishing a clear mission and goals, defining roles and responsibilities, and implementing performance assessments,[4] there is little guidance available regarding specific, practical ways nonprofit leaders can engage their boards in a systems change approach.

So, how can a nonprofit effectively engage its board members in systems change to advance the organization’s mission? Sharon Hirsch, President and CEO (“Chief Executive Optimist,” as she often clarifies) of Prevent Child Abuse North Carolina (PCANC) shared her strategies for success.

PCANC is a statewide organization supporting “the development of safe, stable, nurturing relationships for children in their families and communities to prevent child abuse and neglect.” PCANC takes a systems-level approach to their work by focusing their efforts on five protective factors that communities need to promote the health, safety, and well-being of children: parent resilience, child social-emotional competence, parent knowledge of child development and parenting skills, support for parents, and parent social connections. The organization employs a multi-pronged strategy by convening community stakeholders, promoting awareness of child maltreatment, supporting the use of evidence-based parenting support programs, and engaging in policy work.

Given the scope, scale, and complexity of its work, PCANC recognizes their board members are a critical asset in the success of the organization. The experience of PCANC on how they engage board members in systems thinking is insightful for how other nonprofit can do the same.

Engage your board in ongoing education that enables them to see the big picture, while anchoring the board to organizational goals

When nonprofit board members have a solid understanding of the organization’s programs, strategy, and context, they tend to be more effective strategic thinkers and fundraisers; and demonstrate more commitment, engagement, and leadership.[6] PCANC frequently looks for opportunities to engage board members in learning about the organization’s work, programs, and broader systems context.

Hirsch takes it a step further by ensuring the board hears multiple perspectives, “so that it’s not always just us [PCANC] telling them [board members].” She brings in staff to present on programs, experts to educate about emerging best practices and concepts like implementation science, and leaders from other sectors that can speak to policy changes and the broader context of promoting child and family resilience in North Carolina. Hirsch also helps keep the systems perspective at the forefront by reminding board members that in order to create sustainable impact, systems change takes time.

Additionally, PCANC has trained their board in the Protective Factors Framework that guides board and staff alignment; creates buy-in to their systems approach; and informs decision-making. Using this framework helps PCANC to keep a systems lens while also anchoring to the organization’s goals and staying the course to the mission. Decision-making is guided by capacity, alignment with their framework, and direct connection to organizational goals. For example, board meeting agendas outline how each discussion or decision directly aligns with the organizational goals. 

In summary, Hirsch keeps her board informed not only of the “what” of the work, but the “why.” The result? “Our board gets excited about getting ready for strategic planning!”

Do more than educate – look for opportunities to connect board members to the mission beyond the board room

Boards need more than trainings and speakers to fully understand and engage in the organization’s mission. Boards cannot be effective leaders if they do not fully comprehend or buy-in to the organization’s work.[6] PCANC asks board members to serve on task forces in the community to further their connection to the work. They also conduct workshops with the board to write and revise their elevator speeches so that each member feels confident and competent in talking about the organization’s mission.

Additionally, Hirsch proactively shares talking points on relevant legislative issues to empower board members in serving as advocates for the PCANC. Hirsch also recognizes board members’ comfort level in understanding and sharing the mission by how quickly they respond or endorse policy or position statements.

This approach not only equips PCANC’s board to effectively lead the organization, but also creates a sense of personal connection to the mission and enables board members to see their role in the organization’s societal impact. When board members feel connected to an organization and its work, they are more likely to be active, engaged, and contributing board members.[7] For example, in 2018, two board members took their own initiative to raise awareness about and invest “upstream” in child abuse prevention by kayaking 70 miles down the Neuse River. Such initiative speaks to board’s connection to the mission, how serving on the board matters to them personally, and their understanding of the broader systems that influence PCANC’s work. 

Leverage your board’s networks to establish cross-sector relationships

Systems leaders recognize the importance of networking, collaborating, and partnering within and across sectors in order to find potential synergies, redundancies, and opportunities.[2] Systems leaders effectively cast a wide social net in order to facilitate connections between the nonprofit and individuals or organizations who can work together toward greater progress. Board members can be integral in capturing resources for an organization,[8] specifically through expanding a nonprofit’s network.

Leveraging board members’ networks is a key strategy for systems leaders to expand a nonprofit’s connections. Hirsch requests that board members introduce her to someone new each month. The intent is not necessarily philanthropically focused, but an opportunity for PCANC to connect with partners in other sectors and to further the mission. This practice encourages board members to think creatively about who in other sectors can partner to advance PCANC’s work. Having a robust, well-connected network can help your nonprofit find new resources, get new ideas and inspiration, and have a sustainable impact.

Creating impact through systems leadership

Systems leadership is complex and challenging, but when done right, can broaden the reach and scope of your nonprofit’s impact. Systems leaders will need board members that share in systems-level thinking without losing sight of the organization’s mission, feel a sense of connection to the mission outside the boardroom, and understand the importance of partnership in creating sustainable change. If there is one final takeaway that can be learned from Sharon Hirsch’s approach to systems leadership with Prevent Child Abuse North Carolina, it is to remember to stay positive in the face of complexity, view challenges as opportunities, and celebrate successes big and small.


[1] Walker, J. (2017). Solving the World’s Biggest Problems: Better Philanthropy Through Systems Change. Stanford Social Innovation Review.
[2] Gopal, S., & Kania, J. (2015). Fostering Systems Change. Stanford Social Innovation Review.
[3] Senge, P., Hamilton, H., & Kania, J. (2017). The Dawn of System Leadership. Stanford Social Innovation Review.
[4] Lynch, S. (2015).  David Larcker: Nonprofit Boards Fall Short. Insights by Stanford Business.
[5] Herman, R. (2016). Executive Leadership. In D. O. Rens & R. D. Herman (Eds.) The Jossey-Bass handbook of nonprofit leadership and management (pp. 167-187). Hoboken, NY: John Wiley and Sons, Inc.
[6] BoardSource (2017). Leading with Intent: 2017 National Index of Nonprofit Board Practices
[7] Preston, J. B. and Brown, W. A. (2004), Commitment and performance of nonprofit board members. Nonprofit Management and Leadership, 15: 221-238. doi:10.1002/nml.63
[8] Brown, W. A. (2007). Board development practices and competent board members: Implications for performance. Nonprofit Management and Leadership, 17(3), 301-317.


Jenna Barnes is a Project Manager at the Impact Center at Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she works on an implementation support initiative to support the statewide scale-up of the Triple P Positive Parenting System of Interventions. She holds a Master of Education in Counseling Psychology and has worked in a variety of capacities to serve children, youth, and families. She is a student in the Nonprofit Management Certificate Program at North Carolina State University.

As a registered dietitian, Lindsay Goolsby works on a federal grant to provide nutrition education and chronic disease prevention to low-income individuals and families. Additionally, she is a student in the Nonprofit Management Certificate Program at NC State University. Her interests include the intersection of governments and nonprofits.

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