Little Lights Urban Ministries provides holistic ministry and services to children and families living in poverty in Washington, D.C., primarily focusing on Potomac Gardens and Hopkins on Capitol Hill, as well as Benning Terrace east of the Anacostia River in Ward 7. Little Lights provides high quality and intensive after-school and summer programs with academics and enrichment, one-to-one mentoring and arts-based programs. Little Lights also provides economic empowerment and family resource programs through the Family Center, on-the-job training and the Clean Green Team, a landscaping micro-enterprise.

What does winning this award mean for you and your organization?

We are honored to be recognized as a winner. We have spent the last few years revamping our governance practices, working very intentionally and diligently to build a board that has the full confidence of the Executive Director, staff, donors, and communities we serve. It has required hard work, creative thinking and difficult decisions, but we’ve accomplished a number of core objectives and believe we are institutionalizing practices that will serve the organization well for the long-term. Hence, we are very heartened to have the stamp of approval from the Center for Nonprofit Advancement that we are on the right track and that the organization will benefit from our progress.

What have you learned through the application process for the Board Leadership Award?

The application process has allowed us to take pause and make an overall assessment of our governance practices. Where are there strengths, and where are there weaknesses? Where might there be blind spots? Where are there areas that we could apply more creativity and innovation? The selection committee have been incisive and insightful in exploring all aspects of our governance and prompted us to consider certain issues. For instance, though we have put much thought into succession planning for the Executive Director, we haven’t done likewise for the Board Chair position. Even though the Board has enjoyed a strong relationship with the founding ED, we need to learn to be prepared for constructive disagreements. Though we’ve made progress in fundraising, entrenching a culture of fundraising will require continued energy, accountability, innovating and equipping. In all, we’ve greatly appreciated the opportunity to have outside experts look into our practices and provide us perspectives on how to grow stronger.

What advice would you offer for other organizations/board members striving for excellence in board leadership?

For us, at the outset of our governance revamp, it was imperative to establish a sound governance philosophy in order to cultivate a healthy relationship with the Executive Director. What should be the level of interaction with staff? What does it mean to have the ED as the sole employee of the board? At what point would our fiduciary obligations require us to become more involved in organizational matters? Could board members also formally serve as volunteers? There were several questions we needed to clarify and codify so that our working relationship with the ED and staff was very clear and within healthy parameters. In addition, it was important to codify these and other policies in a comprehensive board policy manual in order to enshrine best practices and, in a sense, develop a “Constitution” that could guide future boards on best practices. It is a document we will use for on-boarding new members, consult when necessary and review every three years so that it keeps up with best practices, lessons we’ve learned and changes in the organization.

Another piece of advice is to at some point devote a disproportionate amount of energy and resources into fundraising to turn board members into ambassadors. We found fundraising to be one of the most challenging aspects of board responsibilities to fulfill yet perhaps the most tangible and impactful way to demonstrate commitment to the organization. For us, the effort went beyond writing checks to availing of all sorts of opportunities to broaden and strengthen the network of Little Lights supporters. We did thank-you phone calls, hosted tables at events, coordinated our efforts for the on-line giving competition, DoMore24. We set a board fundraising goal, signed accountability pledge forms, did network mapping. The fundraising head has worked closely with the development director to provide tools, encouragement, discussion forums to make fundraising more accessible. This remains a work-in-progress, but it is gratifying to see members more comfortable and more enthusiastic in this area and also invigorating when accomplishing fundraising goals together.

Finally, in terms of execution, one over-arching piece of advice would be to establish a long-term roadmap for board improvements and be impatient for implementation but patient for results. The good news about board governance is that it is as much science as it is art. Best practices are widely known and published and as such are achievable by any board. When we went about revamping our board practices, we worked with a BoardSource consultant to establish a roadmap, and then we went about implementing the roadmap ourselves as expeditiously as we could. Nevertheless, implementation doesn’t mean institutionalization, and so it has taken us a few years to get into the routine of performing functions such as establishing an ED review, linking that to the strategic plan, doing compensation, and then tying this to the subsequent year’s budget…etc. It’s also taken time to build a culture of fund-raising. Along the way, we’ve had to build and modify our committees, add new members, and also do board evaluations to assess if we were on the right path or not. There’s been learning by trial-and-error. In all, our three year plan was to get some important fundamentals right in the first year, practice them in the second, and be a well-oiled machine the third. We are now into our third year and have made meaningful progress, so we are grateful to see fruit, but the process does take time.