Grantee Reflections

On Transformative Work with Boards

In 2015 we asked our grantees a question about the governance structures they work within and about the development of transformative work among boards. We inquired: “What relationship does your governing body have to your transformative change work? Does your board engage with any practices? If so, please tell us about it! If not, are there any opportunities to bring transformative work into that body? Have you faced any challenges in this area?”

The responses we received to our inquiry were very inspiring! A good handful of our grantees have brought some sort of transformative practice to their boards; some at a very deep level.

Practices Hidden Leaf grantees use with their boards and governing bodies:

  • Centering
  • Deep check-ins
  • Meditation
  • Visioning retreats
  • Forward Stance
  • Tai Chi
  • Transformative coaching
  • Somatics
  • Circle of appreciation
  • Deep listening
  • Art activities
  • Silence
  • Celebrating creative “failures”
  • Nature-inspired direction setting
  • Relationship building
  • “Acting from center”
  • Poetry
  • Yoga

According to the reports, practices like these (used mostly during quarterly or bi-annual meetings) enable board members to maintain their focus, “bring their full selves,” keep their minds clear, and allow for efficient use of the meeting time. Practice also gives board and staff a shared language and helps them be strategic and stay connected to mission. Forward Together notes that Forward Stance practice at the board level allows everyone to “maintain clarity of purpose in the midst of a changing political environment,” and Movement Generation’s grounding in love and conscious relationship “provides the foundation for us to struggle deeply over questions of strategy, program, and practice.” Rainforest Action Network reports that the practice of deep listening is “a skill that has seen impact in the respectful conduct of our board meetings.”

For Hidden Leaf’s intermediary grantees (who provide transformative training, consulting, and guidance to frontline advocacy groups), practice at the board level appears to be standard. Board members at organizations like Movement Strategy Center, Rockwood Leadership Institute, generative somatics, and National Domestic Workers Alliance have often been participants in the organizations’ own trainings and bring experience with transformative modalities to their governing work.

Specifically, Movement Strategy Center writes: “All our board members have participated in our Transitions Labs and are signed on as core partners in this work. Through this process, they have real experience individually and together in our core shared practices: 60/40 and Forward Stance, storytelling, and transformative movement building. We are also excited by the insight and experience they bring in related practices including somatics, meditation, ritual and ceremony and other forms of socially engaged spirituality. We see them as resources who will help to enrich and ground the integration of practice in our core work over time.”

And National Domestic Workers Alliance notes: “We start every in-person Board meeting with a collective Tai Chi practice and then a mood check to ensure that Board members bring their full selves. We have energizers and movement practices during the meeting to maintain Board members’ energy and focus. We close our meeting with a circle of appreciation. And the person who facilitates our Board retreats is currently going through teacher training with generative somatics to integrate more somatic transformative practices into her facilitation.”

And at Center for Whole Communities: “Most board meetings are done by conference call. Each board meeting begins with check-ins that are grounded in self, asking each individual to go inward so we can all be fully present for each meeting. By beginning each meeting with this inner awareness, there is a pause and an intention in the decision making and conversation.”

It’s not just intermediary organizations that practice at the board level; many of Hidden Leaf’s frontline grantees also share their transformative work with their boards.

Post Carbon Institute reports: “Last year, a PCI board member noted that we sometimes struggle with difficult conversations, and suggested teaming with Courageous Leadership on a training. PCI had our first transformative workshop for board and staff at a two-day board retreat in March. Courageous Leadership helped us deepen our understanding of how change, complexity, and challenging times affect the way we think and act as social beings. The first module (which board and staff completed together) helped us develop a shared language and understanding about how challenging situations can unwittingly affect our behavior and effectiveness.”

And at Mujeres Unidas y Activas: “Board retreats begin with a personal check-in to see how everyone is doing. We ask how everyone is feeling, and about anything that may be bothering her, so that we can give the support necessary for her to be fully present during the retreat. It is important that we begin with these questions because based on their response, we can track where our board members are physically and emotionally. Next, we continue with an art activity, which is different during each of the retreats, so that we can begin to clear our minds and get to know one another more. The art is followed by a breathing exercise, to relax and center us.”

And Mobilize the Immigrant Vote writes: “Board Treasurer Dana Ginn Paredes coaches and often leads Forward Stance as an integral piece of Board meetings, quarterly alliance meetings, and staff retreats. As well—just as we do for staff meetings—check-ins on the personal level are the norm for Board meetings. This makes for highly productive meetings and decision making in which Board members show up with their whole selves and lived experiences.”

And at National Peoples Action: “The practice of Generous Collaboration has become ingrained in our advisory board, trickling down from what began as a practice of our national staff. This is particularly noteworthy as collaboration has often clashed with the orthodoxies of community organizing.”

As is true at the individual and staff level, there are also challenges to incorporating transformative practices into work with boards. The most significant challenge lifted up in this year’s reports is time; specifically, getting enough face-to-face time with board members, as many practices are notably harder over the phone or on Skype. Of course there is also often a lot to be covered in just a few annual meetings!

Canopy Planet addresses their time pressures this way: “Due to board members’ busy schedules, our time with them is generally compressed, which in turn seems to restrict our ability to do deep work in areas that fall outside of their fiduciary responsibilities or the campaigns of the organization. So we have adopted a four-minute “time-efficient” mindfulness practice that creates space for connection to our mission and work at the start and end of our meetings.”

Also of note in terms of challenges is the understandable admission of one organization that “not all board members have the context for the practices and don’t necessarily appreciate their purpose or value yet.” This is an obstacle we sometimes find at the staff level, too. It’s one of Hidden Leaf’s hopes that we can influence these perceptions by persistent and gentle inquiry, and by the legitimizing effect of foundation support…

And finally, funding is often an obstacle to bringing in transformative work, especially funds for retreat time and space and for hiring outside trainers and facilitators who can sensitively and effectively guide the practices.

As a foundation promoting the integration of awareness practices into work for systemic social change, Hidden Leaf has a commitment to integrate practice into our own structures as well. At our own board meetings we begin with silence followed by deep check-ins in order to bring our whole selves into the work. Twice a year, we take an in-depth approach to a more sustained practice (such as somatics or insight meditation) to help us stay present and face conflicts from a place of inner spaciousness. We want to keep deepening our practice at an institutional level and to encourage others along these lines. As we restructure Hidden Leaf in the wake of our founder’s death, we are keenly aware of the value of good governance, the capacity for transformative practices to influence board engagement, and the potential pitfalls of nonprofit board structures. With this year’s inquiry, we hope to become more astute and supportive partners with our grantees in this arena.

We continue to hold the question of how best to support the integration of transformative practices into non-profit board structures. We wonder: in what ways do organizations with a transformative approach to social change need governing bodies that meet them at that level? What might Hidden Leaf’s role be in promoting this kind of institutional deepening? And how ready is the field for more movement in this direction?


Read more tips about transformative practice:

Forward Together: “The transformative change practice of Forward Stance is integrated into all aspects of Forward Together’s work, including Board governance. The Board practices Forward Stance at their in-person meeting, which is a 2-day annual meeting. This practice has helped the Board adopt a “forward stance” in their leadership of the organization and implement principles such as being strategic and proactive, pivoting when needed, and maintaining clarity of purpose in the midst of a changing political environment.”

Rainforest Action Network: “As part of tracking our commitment across RAN, we ask our Board members to share their awareness practices both personally and those practices embedded in the fabric of RAN. As a group, we begin each board meeting by Centering: taking time to focus, bring ourselves to the meeting space, before we begin. We use a peer evaluation process at the board level that includes questions for each other about how we ‘show up’ as partners, colleagues, and leaders. It is a very rare achievement on a volunteer board. I would say that in the two years that we have been doing this it has changed the tone and quality of the board experience tremendously!”

Canopy Planet: “We recognize that success stems from pushing the edge and that by being an organization that brings compassion and curiosity to when we fall short, we help create a culture that supports innovation and creative campaigning. If we do not celebrate our “failures” and make it safe to fail, how will our people continue to grow as leaders and succeed in innovating new ways to achieve our goals more effectively? Last year we changed the format of our Board reports to help our Board and staff dig deeper by reflecting not only on our successes but our belly flops. Our Board has embraced this new approach and enjoys reading about (and contributing to) the transformation that takes place after our team creates the biggest splash because of a failed attempt – knowing that learning comes from recognizing our own fears and triggers and having the emotional skills to move past them.”