Commentary: Reflections on parenting to widen one’s perspective on nonprofit board work

Courtesy of Lisa Pilar Cowan
Lisa Pilar Cowan

Commentary: Reflections on parenting to widen one’s perspective on nonprofit board work

June 13, 2022

Twenty-one years ago, pregnant with my oldest child, I enrolled in a prenatal yoga class in the Brooklyn neighborhood where I live. Ever since then, I have been informally tracking the mothers from the mats next to me and their children through the streets, schools, and parks of Brooklyn. I chatted with the mothers during long, hot hours on the playground, met them at school pick up, on the little league fields, and at the kindergarten, middle, and high school tours that are part of many parents’ New York City public school experience. At each age we talked about what our kids were doing, what our parenting dilemmas were, and what we wanted for our kids.

Now, days out from my youngest kid’s high school graduation, I mostly see those women from my yoga class alone on the streets. We are grayer and slower but less encumbered than in the old days. As I look at them and consider what we will chat about when we run into each other in future years, I see the possibility of widening our common interests beyond raising our own children. I know that I am not done with parenting, but I am better able to see that the energy I poured into my own kids might from this point forward be (and really would always have been) better used poured into our collective.

This shifting understanding is akin to the way my perspective on sitting on a nonprofit board widened when I read Anne Wallestad’s piece onThe Four Principles of Purpose-Driven Board LeadershipWallestad’s piece is the best I have ever read on board participation (and I have actually read quite a bit) –and she posits that our responsibility is to the organization’s purpose, rather than to the organization itself.

“Traditionally, boards are understood to be ‘mission-driven’ which means the board is responsible for ensuring that the organization does good work that advances its cause. But while being mission-driven is centered on the organization's role in doing good, we believe boards need to re-center on purpose: the fundamental reason that the organization exists.”

The other three principles that Wallestad names are also critical: respect for ecosystem, equity mindset, and authorized voice and power – and I really recommend that you read the piece in its entirety. But for the moment, let’s stick with purpose before organization. I take this to mean that rather than putting your loyalty to your organization – its leader, its program design, its fundraising budget – it is incumbent on a board member to really understand the work the organization was built to do, and the people and community it exists to serve. It may be that those interests don’t align – it may require recognizing that your organization’s approach is not the best, that the executive director that you hired does not really understand the community, or that your position on the board does not bring the expertise needed to meet purpose. I think it also makes the role of board member more exciting – it invites us to dive into the work and world that the organizations we serve are built for – and to learn more about the ecosystem they operate within, the allies they work with, and the ways that the current political moment affects the issues.

For my role as mother, I think the shift to ‘purpose-driven parenting’ requires that I look at what issues, schools, resources and leaders serve all of our children – not just my own. It requires me looking to shift educational policy rather than serving on a fundraising committee for my kids’ school, to work on college access for all, rather than supporting my kid to write the best essay possible to gain entry to their school of choice. It demands that I volunteer for all city parks, not just cleaning up my favorite spot in Prospect Park.

This is not a perfect analogy, of course. Being a board member is not the same as being a parent. But the thing I find compelling about both is the invitation to pierce the balloon of self-interest, and open ourselves up to caring about the full community, city, country, and planet. They sometimes say that a parent is only as happy as their least happy child, and I have the parallel feeling that any community is only as strong and healthy and happy as its most marginalized and vulnerable members. These times we are living through are so replete with loneliness, isolation, fear, and uncertainty, so many of our neighbors are marginalized and vulnerable – and the thing that gives me a sense of hope is the possibility that we all take care of each other rather than simply turning inward into our own separate families and homes.

Lisa Pilar Cowan
is the vice president of the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation and in this capacity she helps with strategy, development and oversight of foundation programs and grantmaking. Lisa has been working with community-based organizations for the last 25 years, first as a community health educator and program director at several youth-serving agencies, then as a senior consultant at Community Resource Exchange. Lisa was the co-founder of College Access: Research and Action, where she continues to act as an advisor. Most recently, Lisa was the principal consultant at Hummingbird Consulting from 2013-2016.