by Sarah Lockridge-Steckel

When we started the Memphis Music Initiative, we knew a few things were true. More than 26% of youth in Memphis’ underserved communities will not graduate from high school, and only 5% of youth have access to after-school music programming. This is critical because music is a powerful tool that can deepen children’s engagement in school, strengthen problem solving and provide outlets for our youth to discover their strengths and passions.

Equity was at the center of this work. In order to solve this challenge, we knew we had to create equitable opportunities for black and brown youth in our city. And the reality was, organizations that could create those opportunities were far too often underfunded and under-supported. Fixing this is at the core of our mission. But we cannot drive against this vision of equity without having equity and diversity at the center of our board.

At its core, the board is responsible for steering¹ “the organization towards a sustainable future by adopting sound, ethical, and legal governance and financial management policies, as well as by making sure the nonprofit has adequate resources to advance its mission.” We also hold the Executive Director or CEO accountable and ensure the organization is on track against its strategy. We provide “foresight, oversight and insight.” Diversity and equity are often discussed, but what difference does having an equitable board make? What changes as a result?

1)  We are more thoughtful about our investments and how they can best drive forward our mission. The most basic function of a board is to ensure resources are being used effectively. Grantmaking and capacity building are at the core of MMIs work. In philanthropy, relationships are central. By having a diverse board, we ensure we are seeing and highlighting programs and initiatives that might otherwise be overlooked in traditional philanthropy. People gravitate toward what they know and see but having new and different voices at the table ensures we do not continue to fund a subset of the work that is happening. We cannot expect dramatically different results if we continue to do the same things. And the board’s role is to ensure that vision of equity is infused in every investment the organization makes. At MMI, that has looked like incredible programs like MMI Works and the Music Engagement Teaching Fellowship getting funded and getting capacity-building support to grow and thrive.

2)  We evaluate quality and success in a far more holistic way. We will produce better outcomes if equity is at the center of our work. As a board, we are bringing different experiences and perspectives to this work. We each experience the work that MMI is doing differently and that allows us to think about how to grow and support the organization through multiple lenses.  How will this work impact each child? Each parent? And each community? Because we are representative of those voices and our community more broadly, our sense of what is working is dramatically different.

3)  Our ability to hold the organization accountable. The last and most critical role of a board is accountability. Are we doing what we say we are going to do? But in a board that is centered on equity, we are also asking the question – to whom are we accountable? To whom are we listening? Whose voices are driving this work? And when we have differences of opinions, to whom do we defer? These questions are central to our ability to have impact.

As you think about the role of a diverse board in your organization, I encourage you to think about the following questions:

  • Does your board reflect the voices and experiences of the people who are participating in your programs and services?
  • Do you create space for disagreement and for each and every voice to be heard?
  • Do you push against the status quo? And ask how things could look different? And be better?
  • Do you elevate the voices that were traditionally marginalized and pushed out?

My experience on the MMI board has been incredible. We truly believe our role is to help the organization execute its mission and be the best that it can be. But without diversity at its core, we would not get to the best answers, perspectives and plans.

1.) Source: https://www.councilofnonprofits.org/tools-resources/board-roles-and-responsibilities

Sarah Lockridge-Steckel is the CEO and Founder of The Collective in Memphis, Tennessee. The Collective is creating clear pathways to careers, for the over 45,000 youth out of school and work in Memphis. The vision of The Collective is that every young adult has the power to live their best life and the tools to make that a reality. She believes that we fix a broken system by investing directly in the visions and ideas of our young adults. Prior to launching The Collective, Sarah helped design the Memphis Music Initiative (MMI), a citywide $20M youth initiative to increase access to music education. Sarah moved to Memphis in 2011 to work with Youth Villages, a national child welfare organization that supports families in the child welfare and mental health systems in over 20 states. There, she was responsible for helping the organization expand their services in three states (MA, TN, OR). Sarah has also worked as an independent consultant guiding the strategies of local and national organizations. Prior to joining Youth Villages, Sarah was a Senior Associate Consultant at The Bridgespan Group, which specializes in strategic solutions for mission-driven organizations. Sarah holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Sociology from Harvard University, where she was President of the Black Students Association and Co-Director of the Franklin I-O Summer Program. She also received the Women’s Leadership Award. In May 2016, she received her MBA from the Yale School of Management, with a focus on nonprofit management and urban poverty. She grew up in Detroit, MI and her family is originally from Mississippi.