Embarking on a New Role
Engage Magazine Fall 2022

Embarking on a New Role: A Chat with BoardSource’s Monika Kalra Varma

Monika Kalra Varma is BoardSource’s new President and CEO. We sat down to chat about her vision for BoardSource, common problems of today’s nonprofit boards, and hear her perspective on how to overcome a “scarcity mindset.”

Can you touch on some of the goals that you’re excited to work on as you embark on this new role?

JMonika Kalra Varma, BoardSourceMy initial goals are framed by my vision for the larger nonprofit ecosystem. Having spent most of my career in human rights and civil rights work, my vision is always to be able to fulfill each purpose and ensure the folks the organizations they exist to partner with are able to live their lives with dignity and live out their dreams. At the end of the day, with most nonprofits there’s some thread of that in the work that they’re doing. And my hope is that organizations have the resources in terms of the people sitting around the table and the finances to carry out those goals.

What do you feel has changed about the role and function of being on a nonprofit board in a post-pandemic world?

Everything! I think many nonprofit organizations carry a lot of trauma in their systems, and so understanding how that impacts the work is important. And because of the pandemic and the crises that they’ve gone through, a lot of times boards did pivot to really patterning with their leadership in different and exciting ways, so I do hope that kind of thinking will continue.

Are there key issues or challenges that typically come up for organizations and their boards that are more specific to nonprofits?

I think a lot of nonprofits don’t have the right people sitting around the board tables. If you look at the diversity of boards and quite frankly, executives of nonprofits across the country, 80 percent are white. If you think about the communities they’re partnering with and the problems they’re trying to solve, you’ve got to have folks from those communities represented in setting the strategic vision and direction of an organization. 

There’s also sort of a ‘scarcity mindset’ in nonprofits that’s always existed. We’re always trying to get the next dollar. We’re trying to solve some of the hardest problems in society, and we’re not doing it from a space of abundance and creativity and strategy, because we’re just trying to keep the lights on. I think many boards, because of how they’re structured, are not thinking about this as a partnership with the work. They’re thinking of it as a fiduciary-only responsibility. So I think there’s room for growth in that area.

One of the things boards are responsible for doing are CEO transitions. Many organizations I know are going through significant CEO transitions. They’re very well-intentioned efforts to diversify leadership. I’m the first leader of color at BoardSource. One of the things we’re going to be doing this year is documenting my transition and rethinking how we set up leaders of color to ensure their success. We’ve put out a resource on avoiding what’s called the Glass Cliff – which is when a leader of color succeeds a white leader and is essentially set up for failure because they’re essentially expected to come in and solve every DEI problem the day they arrive.

Then we’ve got to think about the next year. What are the structures the board needs to put in place to ensure they’re going to be success? I will tell you from my own experience, coming into a board that has diversity on it and has gone through a significant amount of DEI work makes all the difference in the success and the thinking around the transition. I think it’s a really important thing to talk about, because one of the key roles of a board is to hire and partner with the CEO, and when we’re talking about DEI, we should really be talking about both pieces of that. 

What is something you wish everyone knew before joining a board?

I think people don’t realize it’s a lot of work. To be informed about the work of the organization, to fulfill your fiduciary responsibility, to really understand the role that it plays in solving the problem they’re trying to solve, or the purpose they’re trying to achieve. Even just structurally – attending board meetings, being on committees, and really being prepared and engaged for those things – that alone is a decent amount of time. It’s a lot of work, but it should be. 

Service is the greatest way to transform yourself, in my opinion. To serve on a board, and to understand the issues, and to care about the organization you’re a part of, can be very fulfilling. Onboarding begins at the recruitment level. When we’re having conversations with potential board members and being clear about what it is that we are, how this particular board works, what are the roles, functions, and expectations, terms of service. Once you’re there, you’re given all the mechanical things like the bylaws, articles of incorporation, and understand the finances of the organization, the business model of how it works, the purpose of the organization, and I think it’s really important to understand who the other players are in that world. Who are the other organizations that are working towards that purpose and what role does the organization and board you’re sitting on serve within that, so that you’re really aware of what that is? I think being really thoughtful about how you want to show up in those spaces and what unique thing or perspective you might be able to contribute.

If you could give all nonprofit boards a call to action, what would it be?

We talk a lot about purpose-driven board leadership. Let’s stop talking about the past and how it was done. Let’s look at the future and ask what is best for the community we’re partnering with. How will we fulfill the purpose of the organization and guide it into the future to truly bring our best strategic thinking to a problem? Think about the purpose and the social change you’re trying to achieve, and whether you have the right people around your board table to achieve that goal.