The Power of Process

This week's guest blogger is Jennifer Jackson, CEO of Arise Collective; a nonprofit organization in Raleigh, NC, that equips women with the tools and support they need to heal, grow, and thrive both in prison and in the communities to which they return. Jennifer has held leadership positions in several North Carolina and New York City nonprofits over the past 28 years in the areas of prison chaplaincy and reentry, social services, the arts, community development, victim services, human rights, and spiritual activism. Learn more in her bio.

The nonprofit I serve, Arise Collective, equips women with the tools and support they need both in prison and in the communities to which they return. We operate on a calendar year fiscal year, which makes January a very busy month, culminating in the annual meeting of our board. As I sat in a too-small room filled with board, staff, and guests this past January31st – not to mention those joining us via Zoom – I marveled at the laughter and goodwill present and felt immense gratitude and relief at how far we’ve come.

To say that our organization has gone through significant growth over the past number of years is an understatement. I arrived in 2015 to a faith-based organization working solely with women inside the prison. Today, we operate seven reentry homes throughout the area, providing post-release residential services and supports to 30-35 women each year and non-residential services to another 20-40. We offer episodic transitional support to over 100 women annually, and still provide core programs and services inside the prison serving 500+ women each year through chaplaincy services, as well as engagement programs and activities in the community.

How we got from there to here is a testament to the willingness of our board to embrace change past initial comfort levels and through all the strain that growth can have on an organization. This was possible, I believe, through the power of process. Process done right can smooth all kinds of rough edges. Process done right can bring people toward a center and consensus they otherwise could or would not allow themselves to imagine or reach on their own. Process done right can move the loftiest of visions into action. Process done right is not personal, but it is inclusive. It requires a set of ingredients and a blueprint to follow that can serve as an inviolable anchor in unfamiliar times, and as a base for adding personal flavor whenever deviation is possible.

From the moment our then Board Chair and I met with Bert Armstrong at Carolina Café in the Spring of 2019, and were later introduced to Staci Barfield, we knew that we were in the right hands to embark upon our organizational process, and that it would be done right. Where we were thinking about going was exhilarating – and scary – enough. No uncalculated risks were necessary…the women we serve and what they and our community were asking us to do were our North Star. For anyone contemplating mission-shifting or broadening new directions, here are a few thoughts I’d like to share about our ever-evolving journey:

Get Honest

We had to begin with where we were. What did we think about ourselves and what we were doing? What did our program participants and external constituents think? Through an organizational assessment that included the voices of over 100 people through interviews, surveys, and focus groups, we identified four strategic priorities that yielded, among other things, a tighter mission statement, a rebrand, and an expansion into reentry housing. The assessment also uncovered the need for a comprehensive board development process to include some of the activities and initiatives listed below. Key takeaway: Disaggregated, the data that supported the need for board development came from the board members themselves. There is great power in that.

Get Structured

Over the next half year, we parlayed all this data from the organizational assessment into a strategic planning session from which a 5-year strategic plane merged, set to expire this June of 2024. This document has remained a living, breathing guidepost for our organization. Our board has officially revisited, refined, and re-ratified it twice – in 2021 and again in 2023. Our staff annual plans are based on its strategic priorities, goals, and initiatives. Staff and board reflect each month on one of our guiding principles. In addition to guiding the original work and our 2021 refresh, we also invited Staci to facilitate our board retreat in 2023. Key takeaway: It is a worthy, intentional effort not to allow a strategic plan to rest on a shelf. The document needs a steward. Might it be you?

Get Realistic

Back in 2019, our board structure was typical of working boards, with numerous committees with a small handful of members on each. Staci proposed what was, to us, a radical change: simplifying our structure to two primary committees —Internal Affairs and External Affairs — on which all members belong. Exactly as they sound, they each focus on a bigger slice of the pie and allow for cross-departmental interaction among different yet intersecting business areas. Subcommittees allow us to drill down further into specific areas and working groups - such a sour rebranding committee – come together and then disband once their work is done. Key takeaway: Our subcommittees (i.e., finance, special events, and housing), provide opportunities for rich board and staff collaboration.

Get Serious

It is easy for small nonprofits – particularly those with societally challenging missions – to become passive rather than active architects of their board composition. Connection to a timely and powerful mission is both powerful and attractive, and we unapologetically embraced our role in providing opportunities for people to be a part of an effort that serves our community’s most marginalized neighbors. Taking a page from constituent-led organizations like academic institutions, we set aside a certain number of board seats for members with expertise in particular areas – for example, mental health and real estate. We also designated seats for at-large members who represent the broader community in which we operate. Key takeaway: With the help of a board prospect tool and board matrix, we are able to identify gaps on our board and address them on an ongoing basis.

Get Resourced

Another revolutionary tool to come out of our board development process was our governance manual, a 32-page document that outlines everything it means to be aboard member at Arise Collective. Comprehensive and replete with a game-changing governance calendar, it also includes a staggering array of those documents a board needs to govern, from board and committee job descriptions and board assessments to the compliance documents that board members must sign each year. It also includes a cache of relevant educational documents from Board Source and Blue Avocado. Key takeaway: Use annual board evaluations to identify training topics of interest and need.

Get Strategic

As our board has matured from a working board to a governance one, we have reduced the number of annual board meetings from every other month to quarterly. Fewer meetings of longer duration coupled with a consent agenda format allow space for members to dive more deeply into and grapple with topics of strategic relevance and interest to our work and organization. Previously, board meetings were more transactional and procedural, so the shift has been welcomed. Key takeaway: Reasoned changes to your bylaws may be necessary to support the board development and organizational growth changes you seek.

Get Together

In 2019, we started the year with 10 board members, and the next three years saw us losing and gaining 3-4 members each year, steadily broadening and refining our member mix to our current 15. New members this year were surprised by the comprehensiveness of our orientation process, documents, and structure. Because we previously changed the month in which the board votes on new members, they were all active and ready to go by our January 31stannual meeting. Because of the reduction in the number of annual board meetings, we have to be intentional around getting together, and use annual retreats, program activities with participants, special events, committees and subcommittees, and board “buddies” to keep members engaged with the organization, each other, and staff. The fact that there are requests for more chances to be together and get to know each other socially bodes well. Key takeaways: Monthly Board Nuggets are a necessary way for me to keep members up to speed on organizational matters in between board meetings.

Get Going

“You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.” – Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

With the assistance of Staci and Armstrong McGuire, we were able to craft what in hindsight looks like an elegant and coherent process but at the time, was experienced as incremental, sometimes messy, occasionally painful, willful movement forged out of a desire to be of value to the women we serve, relevant to our community, and worthy of the funding and partnership of those who invest in our work. Many thanks to the many board members – past and present – whose vision and foresight allowed for this transformation to take place.

Please feel free to contact me at to continue the conversation. I hope to hear from you.

Take a deeper dive into Arise Collective and Armstrong McGuire's partnership through our case study.

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