Kate Hayes On How To Create Better Non-Profit Boards


Kate Hayes is the director of Direct Impact at Echoing Green. She oversees programming for emerging business leaders who are dedicated to realizing their full potential as agents of social change.

She leads retreats, workshops, and immersive site visits focused on leadership development, purpose, strategic governance, philanthropy, and social entrepreneurship. Prior to joining Echoing Green, she worked as Director of Evaluation and Program Impact in the national office of Minds Matter. Kate currently sits on the Executive Committee at the Northfield Mount Hermon School, where she serves as Vice President of the Alumni Council. Kate has written for the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Forbes, and across the web about issues related to leadership, purpose, social entrepreneurship, and nonprofit boards. She holds a degree in Behavioral Neuroscience from Northeastern University.


Kate discusses the keys to effective leadership development, providing insights into boards that create impact. She shares effective traits of purpose-led leaders and tips to solve difficult challenges.


Highlights from the interview (listen to the podcast for full details)

[Tom Allen] - Could you please share a bit about your background and what lead you to working in the social enterprise sector?

[Kate Hayes] - Like many, my background and journey into this sector was a winding path. When I was in school, I was studying behavioural neuroscience, because I had always been really interested in human behaviour and why people do the things they do; why they make the decisions that they make. I also was a pretty big science geek. So I wanted to bring those two things together, and decided that I would use that as a launching point into medicine, and go to medical school.

While I was in college I did a lot of volunteering and found myself spending several years volunteering in an organisation called The Family Van, which was a mobile healthcare clinic working in Boston. What I learned in that experience is that organisation had been started by an Echoing Green fellow. And I had no idea what Echoing Green was; I didn't really know what social entrepreneurship was. It was happening, but it was just around the time that it was starting to be named, as social entrepreneurship.

And that experience really got me to thinking about the type of impact that I wanted to have on the world, and how I could create the biggest, most systemic change. So I said, 'why don't I try out working in the non-profit sector and see how I like it?' And put my medical school applications on hold.

I did just that, and ended up falling in love with the sector and with this group of people in the community that I found that were trying to solve big, systemic, societal and environmental issues and I felt like I had found where I was meant to be. And so, spent some time in the youth education sector for several years, when ultimately I decided that I wanted to make a bigger impact; I should become a social entrepreneur. I think a lot of us in this space have that moment. And so I wrote a business plan and submitted it to Echoing Green, and made it pretty far in their process, but ultimately did not get the fellowship.

But that ultimately led to me reengaging with the organisation and ultimately joining the team about four years ago, to really build a new program that works with business leaders and supports our social entrepreneurs at Echoing Green. And so it completely makes sense how the path brought me here, but was not what I expected to be doing. But was glad to find my way.

So, your role then at Direct Impact focuses on "transforming rising stars of the private sector into highly effective board leaders at the world's most innovative social enterprises," and you've just mentioned this program. So can you tell us a little bit more about it and how it achieves this?

Sure. So when I was starting the program, I was looking into the field to see what was happening, knowing that we wanted to work with business leaders, and we wanted to support social entrepreneurs. And I had a few ideas about gaps in the field. One that really stood out was developing board members, and how boards function; how effective or ineffective they are. I began to see that boards were not all that effective, and there was very few training programs that existed.

So I stepped back and said, 'okay, is there a way that we could better train board members to really reimagine what board leadership could look like?' And so with that decided to launch the program, and really take what's at the core of Echoing Green, which is leadership development, and apply it to that space.

So Direct Impact is a cohort-based program. We're bringing a group of people from across the private sector, or across a particular company, together to go through a very intensive shared experience, so that each person can really understand not only the type of organisation that they want to serve on the board of, but how they more broadly want to make an impact in the social sector.

The program itself is really built on four key areas. So, leadership development is the constant throughout the program. We're looking both at individual leadership, so what's my purpose, what's my mission; how do I show up, how do others perceive me? As well as group leadership, so how do we especially, as the very unique team environment that is a board, work together in the most effective way?

The second area is around strategic governance. So, legal and fiduciary responsibilities as boards are important, but what's even more important is how the group of leaders show up and engage in the strategic conversations that they need to have, in order to push the organisation's mission forward.

The third area is around philanthropy and fundraising. So, ensuring that our future board members have been trained as fundraisers and they understand what sustainability looks like for non-profits.

And then the final area is social entrepreneurship and understanding how change happens. Since our primary demographic is coming from the private sector, many of them have not worked within non-profits. So we really want to expose them to the nuances that it takes to really run and grow and help a non-profit organisation thrive so that as board members they're able to have that mindset as they go in to make really important decisions for the organisation.

It sounds like a really interesting program. In talking about these nuances that they might need to learn to really get a board performing well, you recently wrote an article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review called "A Roadmap to Better Boards." So could you please share a bit more about your thoughts and insights from this article and outline what you believe nonprofit boards need to do to perform really strongly?


One of the biggest challenges, and I think the big roadblock that can be overcome when it comes to a board, is diversity, equity, and inclusion on boards. It's one thing to prepare a board that's in place to do really fantastic things and show up well, but you've got to have the right people in the room first.

And currently, boards are not all that diverse. And the numbers have actually been going down when you look at racial and ethnic diversity.

So that's what inspired me to write this article, and it's something that we've been thinking about from the start, and have been very intentional about; how do we increase diverse talent pipelines onto boards, given that only 20% of nonprofit board members are people of colour; 25% of boards are entirely white. And when you look at leadership positions, 90% of board chairs are white.

So, there's something that can be fixed, and I think it's actually easier than we expect, because the article really focuses on the three key actions that need to be taken. The first is making the decision to become a more diverse board. And that sounds like an easy step, but it actually requires the board to really think about what diversity means to them; it looks different for every board; and to become very intentional in getting to a place where their board looks the way they want it to. And I'm talking racial and ethnic, gender, socioeconomic status, community stakeholder, things like that. Again, knowing that it's different for everybody.

So after that decision is made and a shared definition has been created, recruitment is the biggest factor. We often recruit for board positions within our own networks, and our networks tend to look like us. So boards need to create a strong role description; have a vetting process that is equitable for every person that raises their hand and says they want to join board; and then really focus on getting that job description out into the field, into the world, so they can recruit who they want to recruit and who is going to help them really make the decisions and have the perspectives that are important.

From there, once you've had the right people come on board, you have to really build the infrastructure for them to all be successful. And this is when the inclusion part becomes really important; it's one thing to get them in the room, yet another thing to make sure that there's shared power and shared voices. So, creating board evaluation and accountability is incredibly important. Evaluating your board members year after year on their performance; not just their fundraising performance, but how they're showing up in meetings, how they're engaging with the community that the organisation is serving, those things are really important.

And then thinking about the facilitation of board meetings, which starts with getting very clear on what a board meeting should look like, and it's not running through updates for two hours; it can be much more interactive than that. And making sure that there is strong facilitation in place.

And then the final area is investing in that leadership, because there are so few board training programs and training opportunities that exist; that's something that we want organisations to invest in. Not just as their boards look new and are very diverse, but for any board, training is incredibly important. So, making sure that you're building trust and a building relationships amongst board members so that they're able to be a group that feels comfortable and safe to perform as they need to. Really thinking about group dynamics and what that looks like, that shared power.

And one of the things I love to say during this transition, is that boards have to get comfortable feeling uncomfortable. There's a lot of change; it takes a lot of culture change to take a board from where it is to a really exceptionally performing board. And there's going to be discomfort in that.

But really leaning into that and knowing that it's for the ultimate success of the organisation.

Kate advising social entrepreneurs in Nepal.

Kate advising social entrepreneurs in Nepal.

So more broadly then, how might we shift corporate mindsets from one which may prioritise economic return and shareholder value to one which recognises the social and environmental challenges that we're facing and behaves in a way then, even as a board, that creates shared value for our communities?

I think we're at an exciting moment, from my perspective, and as I work with corporations, more are starting to see the importance of that. And my vantage point, it really comes down to what employees are asking for, and demanding.

As the younger workforce enters, they want companies that really care about that social and environmental impact, and many are not going to join companies if they aren't thinking about that.

So the way I really think about it, is building that employee engagement within. And I'm not talking about having more one-day volunteering opportunities, but really developing their workforce to support them in supporting the mission that they care most about, and then bringing that culture of philanthropy to the company; that we've started to see with some of the companies that we've been working with, and I think that is what has the potential to start to move the needle in that company decision-making. What we really believe at Echoing Green and I really believe, is that...

all social change happens through relationships.

So I think that when you're able to get employees invested in the things they care about and supported by the company, it actually takes a lot of the work off the company and allows the employees to build that culture of philanthropy, that social-environmental is the bottom line, from within.

Really interesting. So what do you believe then are the three most important traits of effective purpose-led leaders?

Oh this is such a great question. And I'll say first I think that there is no one definition of leadership. So I think with that, the first is self-awareness, and understanding who you are, how you want to show up in the world, what you care most about; getting really clear on those things. Both your strengths, or as I like to think of them, your superpowers, and the places that you get stuck.

But having that deep understanding of yourself, I think is the most important thing, and that ultimately leads to helping you on the journey to purpose.

I think the second most important thing for purpose-driven leaders is storytelling.

Really interesting. So what do you believe then are the three most important traits of effective purpose-led leaders? [continued]

When I think about all social change happening through relationships, that means that social change happens through stories. So I think for leaders to be able to influence others through the stories they tell, our spheres of influence, there's so much opportunity to impact those that are closest to us.

So the way we tell stories and share what we're learning in the field is incredibly important.

And the third, I think, is the ability to be present. I think a lot about the fact that we're now in a world where everybody's moving so fast and we don't give ourselves and others the gift of being present in the moment enough.

I think in order to really move the needle on some of these issues, we have to be present in board meetings, we have to be present in conversations with others that we agree with on the issues, that we disagree with, with our colleagues, with our family, and just being there and being present, I think, is incredibly important for purpose-driven leaders.

Kate at Gardens For Health in Rwanda.

Kate at Gardens For Health in Rwanda.

So, what are some of your favourite tools or processes that you use with leaders to help them turn their challenges into opportunities?

The first thing that I'll say is, giving time and space can really free up the mind a lot to figure out challenges that somebody's going through. So much of Direct Impact is space where the cohort is together, and they're creating their own community, they're creating their own insights. And so, my favourite process is almost no process. But it requires getting out of your day to day and really giving yourself time and space to be present and think through some of these challenges.

And I think also, rethinking the way you're developing relationships in that time. The very first question, on the very first day that we bring together a Direct Impact cohort, (and I also do this in broader trainings), we have people pair up and they each have 60 seconds to share something that's bringing them joy right now.

And you can imagine, there's a lot of surprised faces, and "I thought we're in a board training, what's going on?" But it's amazing how when we connect in to ourselves and to what we care about as humans, that puts us in a different place to be able to think through the challenges that we're facing. So I think that's one. And there's lots of questions that you can ask in pairs like what's bringing you joy right now? What is your superpower, that thing that you're uniquely good at, great at?

I've found coaching to be one of the most incredible tools for problem-solving. I really believe that every problem that exists for a person, they know the answer to; I just try to facilitate them getting to that answer.

So whether it's individual coaching, which is something that I do a lot of, or creating group coaching experiences, so that the power of peers can help. But that just requires deep and intentional questioning, and curious, clarifying questioning to elicit insights from you, as opposed to somebody else giving advice. So I think that using that coaching process for anybody can be incredibly helpful.

And the third that I'll say, that will sound simple but from a neuroscience perspective it works, from a human behaviour perspective it works, is just tapping into breathing. Especially during transitions. So let's say you're going into a brainstorming session; there's a big problem that you want to solve.

Take 10 seconds to take a few deep breaths to get into that moment, and I can almost guarantee that you'll be more likely to solve any challenge when you're intentional about moving into that space and that mindset that you need to be in, in order to do so.

Some really clear advice there. So changing the focus to Millennials now; you've written a number of articles in Forbes on Millennials, and one of them was called "12 Ways Millennials Can Increase their Emotional Intelligence at Work." So, as Millennials become an active part of today's workforce, what advice would you have for those which would like to pursue a career in a social enterprise or nonprofit?

For Millennials, so much of finding a path into social impact is embracing the fact that it's going to be winding, there is no perfect formula.

I get questions a lot about, 'well what should I major in in college', and, 'what does that first job need to look like?' I think, major in what you care most about. Major in something that interests you. Everything you could possibly study is going to be applicable to some sort of career in the social impact space. I really believe that.

And I think then, getting really clear on this notion of context and content. We think about this in the board space, but I think it's really important in the career space too. And that's around, it's easy to get stuck in, I care so much about education, so I have to go and find a job at an education-focused organisation or in a school. That's an important starting place, and getting clear on what that mission, that personal mission is, but what's equally important is the context. So actually, I'm really interested in operations and strategy, and I want to figure out how to make things better. Start there, and start on what that great role looks like, because then you can learn the skillset at at job that has that offering available, that open job position, and you can then begin to bring that into whatever issue area you are working within.

So that's one piece. And I think the second is, don't be afraid to try things out. And I do think that there's a lot to be said about staying in a role longer than it's comfortable perhaps.

We're seeing Millennials job hop and there are at times roles that you're really not happy in, and are actually pretty miserable in, and it's okay to leave. But I do think there's a lot to be said for staying beyond your comfort zone.

Because I think there's a lot to learn, especially when you go beyond what you think is your finishing point.

And then finally, knowing that your day job is one piece of the impact that you're going to have. I really believe that work is more than what we get paid for, so while you might work in an organisation, and might not feel like you're having as much impact and being as purpose-driven as you want, remember that there's a whole lot of time outside of work that can be spent really pushing the needle forward on the issues that you care most about.

So are there any particular organisations or initiatives that you've come across lately which you believe are creating this really positive social change, that you think may be inspiration to the listeners?

This is such a hard one for me, working at Echoing Green, where we have so many incredible organisations. So, I think the first thing I would say is, whenever I'm looking for inspiration, I'll go to Echoing Green and look at our newest class of fellows. We just brought on about 30 new organisations this month that are having incredible change. It's hard for me to pick fellow favourites, but I'll share maybe one or two that I do think have really unique ideas and are solving problems in a really amazing way.

The first is African Entrepreneur Collective. They are working in Rwanda, and they have the fundamental belief that every problem that exists in Africa has a solution that already exists in Africa. Which I think, given the way we think about international development, is a really compelling way to think about their work. And they're investing in local entrepreneurs. Everything from rice farmers to people working in transportation, to teachers and educators. And I think that that work is so incredible that they're doing there.

The second that I'll say that inspires me is Drive Change, which is working in New York City where I'm from. And the founder, Jordan, is using the food industry and specifically food trucks, to support returning citizens youth who are coming out of incarceration, teaching them the skills that they need to work in the food industry, and to be able to come back into society and be set up for success instead of being set up for failure.

So, I could go on for hours, but I do think that there's a lot to be said by just going onto our site. You can search by what issue area you care most about, or what geography. And there's certainly a lot of inspiration there.

Fantastic. So to finish off then, could you please recommend a few great books or articles that you think would inspire the listeners?

So a couple that I've been reading lately, that I've really enjoyed. This one came out a little over a year ago: Radical Candor by Kim Scott I think is a fantastic book for anybody in the workplace, and especially those working within social sector organisations, just thinking about how we give feedback to each other. Because I think when we get that right we're able to do a lot of things.

I just finished reading Measure What Matters, about OKRs. And that's something that cuts across the private and social sector, and there's some great thinking about how the Gates Foundation uses these objectives and key results I think that's really phenomenal for anybody to think about.

And then, I have to say, anything by Brene Brown. I find a lot of inspiration, and a lot of thought-provoking things about looking within to figure out who I want to be in the world. One of her recent ones, Braving the Wilderness, is top of mind, but you really can't go wrong with anything that she's written or any video of her that you can watch.


Initiatives, resources and people mentioned on the podcast

Recommended books


You can contact Kate on LinkedIn or Twitter. Please feel free to leave comments below.

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