A View Into NTL

Nourishing Tomorrow’s Leaders (NTL) was launched six years ago to address a troubling lack of diversity among nonprofit leadership in CNY.

            In the fall of 2014, The Gifford Foundation, in partnership with the Central New York Community Foundation, Leadership Greater Syracuse, the Human Services Leadership Council, and community residents decided to launch a brand new program aimed at bolstering the level of diversity within nonprofit boards across Central New York. The concept was born out of a frustration that many organizations’ boards did not reflect the populations they served. Furthermore, those same nonprofits often felt helpless when it came to enhancing diversity within their leadership structure. Gifford began to formulate a plan aimed at strengthening these committees and building their capacity. One of the first people they reached out to was Marissa Saunders, a social justice and program development expert, who also shared these concerns. “All the boards looked the same, had the same mission, were doing things the same way, and with no real substance,” she said. Shortly thereafter, Saunders was invited to join a planning committee for the new project – Nourishing Tomorrow’s Leaders (NTL).

Marissa Saunders was one of the first presenters brought in to teach NTL participants in 2014. She has been active in the program ever since.

            Saunders has since participated in every NTL cohort since its founding. She speaks to participants about diversity, pushing them to ask difficult questions and providing new tools for self-evaluation. “What is your mission? What is your background? What have you done in the community lately? Does it match with who you are, where you are trying to go, and your values? And how often are you making decisions based on your values?” By examining their own work under this lens, Saunders helps NTL participants build a long term vision based on their own values, strengths, goals, and priorities.

            Diversity remains at the center of Saunders’ NTL presentations, yet despite the popularity of the term – she has found that most people have a poor understanding of what it means and how to utilize it. “It’s not just about race,” she says, explaining that it’s also about diversity of mindset. While race can certainly shape someone’s perspective, so can other factors like education, socioeconomic background, physical ability, religion, and more. In short, a diverse board should include people with a broad range of backgrounds, histories, and experiences. “You want everyone to share a common goal, but that’s it. Share the common goal and then how you get there needs to be from everyone else’s ideas, experiences, thoughts, and needs.” Too often decisions are made simply because of tradition, Saunders says, and that is simply not good enough.

            NTL participants include people who are already serving on boards, people who want to serve, and people who are looking to build a board for their own organization from scratch. For a new organization that is just starting up, making the right choices for who will serve on their board of directors can have a powerful impact on their future. Similarly, more mature organizations are at risk for having boards that no longer reflect their needs or have grown out of touch. Unlike all of the other programs offered by the Gifford Foundation, NTL is open exclusively to individuals rather than organizations. Once accepted, cohort members meet once a week for nine consecutive weeks where they listen to presentations and participate in workshops dealing with fiduciary responsibilities, group dynamics, organizational lifecycles, networking, conflict resolution and more. At the end of the process, there is a graduation ceremony where organizations seeking board members are invited to meet the new NTL graduates.

            Perhaps the most important concept behind NTL is that you do not have to look a certain way or be a specific type of person to serve on a board. “It isn’t just to educate, but to empower people,” says Saunders, “They can have a voice at a table that they might not have thought they could be at.” There are now more than 150 NTL graduates in the program’s history, and 2020 will mark the seventh cohort to participate in the process. Applications will open to the public on February 3rd, 2020.