Boards – blockers or drivers of transformation? 


Matt Jackson and Jillian Popkins


The current debate on transformation in the sector can’t leave out the critical role the board can and must play. Trustees are often characterised as risk averse, slow or resistant to change – and many CEOs will have uttered the words, ‘the board will never sign that off’.  But how true is this?  Are all boards caught between caution, outright conservatism and/or their own comfort with the status quo? Or is there a frustrated desire to be more radical in how organisations can best respond to increasing global challenges?

As many boards (both profit and non-profit) will testify, our transformation wasn’t the result of one epiphany moment, but rather there was a confluence of factors. As a board, we’d often asked about what our future business model should be. We were a medium sized INGO, headquartered in the UK, with five country offices running programmes. We also had a proud history of supporting movement building in the majority world, and ensuring we remained relevant to this work should have been an existential question. Yet exploring this was invariably put to one side as we focused on sustaining the finances.

This changed when three challenges around funding, identity and accountability converged and required us to take a more holistic view. For most not-for-profit boards, focusing almost exclusively on fundraising is not a new experience – and that’s one of the fundamental problems. Our existence felt dependent on responding to, and being successful with, the next institutional call for proposals and generating enough ‘unrestricted funds’ to manage a deficit and balance the books. This absorbed our meetings and contributed to what felt like an identity crisis.

Many on the board felt that we’d become complicit in a system which prioritised donor requirements over the needs and priorities of disability activists. In hindsight, we’d already spent years undergoing a creeping transformation, one where we were now serving the needs of institutional donors and large northern INGOs as opposed to the disability justice movements we were set up to serve.

This realisation created an accountability challenge. In addition to our statutory obligations, ADD’s accountability to disabled peoples’ organisations in the majority world needed to be at the board’s core. Yet in the pursuit of funding, we had lost sight of our mission. This started to become uncomfortably clear when disability activists indicated in an internal consultation a disconnect between our approach and their needs. We were now taking space and creating dependency rather than funding and championing the work of southern led movements.

As a board we acknowledged that we could only solve these interconnected challenges by undergoing a more radical transformation.  We needed to change our funding, rediscover our identity as an ally of disabled activists and make ourselves more accountable to the communities we existed to support.

This recognition has both emboldened and underpinned our transformation journey and we plan to formally acknowledge and apologise for the unintentional harm our former way of working caused disability justice movements. We also want to share our experiences in the hope that our reflections might help other boards demand and drive transformation.

If you’re trying to do something similar, these are three key things to consider:

Be the change you want to see and be explicit about leadership qualities. 

For us, it was important to embody the change we wanted to see and be clear about what we need from our leadership. We knew we would need to work hard to identify values-based and empathic, rather than ‘heroic’, leadership. We purposefully wrote a job description for a Chief Transformation Officer (CTO)– and ideally wanted co-leadership to help enhance diversity and collaboration, while acknowledging that one person was unlikely to have all the skills we needed.

In the job description, we emphasised decolonisation and the need to move funding and decisions to disabled activists and their organisations and away from us. This was a pivotal decision as it sent a clear statement of intent – both internally and externally – that it was no longer business as usual. Secondly, the process of writing the job description provided the opportunity to come together as a board to clarify and crystalise our vision for ADD’s transformation. Thirdly, the calibre of applicants and interviews boosted our confidence that we were on the right path. Finally, being explicit about the transformation we wanted helped streamline the process and its pace which was important for stability.

Set yourself up for success.

To help support our transformation process, we reviewed whose voices we were hearing and expanded our meetings to include country directors.  We also recognised we’d fallen into a common ‘trap’ of having an ‘inner circle of leading and engaged trustees’ which meant decisions weren’t informed and interrogated by the wealth of trustee experience. To resolve this, we disbanded all ‘sub-committees’ and decided to meet more regularly, for shorter times.  This meant we could facilitate more inclusive conversations and every trustee was involved and accountable for decision-making. Subsequently, we’ve also addressed board composition, recruiting new trustees, so that we are meeting our own commitments to diversity.

The CTO recruitment process was also clear about the board’s expectations and timelines. Each candidate was asked how they would design and lead an inclusive transformation process and once in post, one of their first tasks was to develop three or four potential new models, including closing ADD down.  Genuinely exploring and reflecting on this option was important. We didn’t want to continue for the sake of it, so it was critical that activists confirmed that ADD could still add value and be of use.

We also learnt that authentic transformation doesn’t require a big budget. We quickly realised we had an abundance of untapped talent in ADD and decided to allocate a small amount of money to pilot participatory grant-making in Tanzania. This has also provided a useful proof of concept to help articulate what a transformed ADD will look like to donors. Everything we’ve achieved has been without the safety net of substantial reserves and it’s clear that funding isn’t a barrier to initiating change – it could be a barrier to sustaining it – but that’s another article!

Reconnect with your roots.

At an individual level, transformation encouraged each of us to reflect on our personal motivations for becoming a board member. We reconnected with our founder who shared the story of our more radical beginnings and we worked with the to explore and unpick our shared role in upholding colonialism. These sessions helped us reconnect with our roots and focus on and refine what our partners in the movement were telling us they wanted ADD to become.

For ADD, returning to and reclaiming our roots of allyship and disruption is a source of inspiration and strength. Looking to the future this will help sustain us – because there will be challenges and we won’t always get it right. But with humility, accountability, and the commitment of our staff and supporters, we’re optimistic that our work to share and shift power will fuel the global disability justice movement – because there is no justice without disability justice.

Matt Jackson is the current co-chair of ADD International and Jillian Popkins is a former Trustee who completed her term in March 2023 having supported the transformation process. 

ADD International works for disability justice, supporting organisations and activists with funding and leadership skills to build powerful movements for change.

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