Alvin Sanders – Board Governance

“We ask all our Board Members to contribute something.  We believe that is a big deal.  We let the Board Member decide the level of their financial participation.” -Alvin Sanders

[00:00:00] Tommy Thomas: Today, we’re continuing the conversation that we began in episode 95, with Dr. Alvin Sanders, the CEO of World Impact. One thing from that episode that stood out to me was Alvin’s description of how he and his senior staff use the idea of a Circle of Voices and making major decisions. If you didn’t hear that episode, just that idea alone is probably worth the time you’ll spend listening to it. In today’s episode, Alvin will be sharing his experience and spreading of board governance.  Let’s pick up that conversation.

[00:00:38] Tommy Thomas: Let’s go over to the board relationship. I just think that’s so critical in the life of a nonprofit.

And we could start in a number of places, but let’s start with the board chair. When you think of the best board chair you’ve ever served under or observed, give me some words and phrases that describe that person. 

[00:00:55] Alvin Sanders: I’m happy to report that it’s my present board chair, Carl LaBarbara.

He is someone who’s very committed to the ministry with his time, talent, and treasure in a deep way, in a deep sense. And he’s also committed to me and my personal well-being. So, I think those are the things that you look for in a board chair. 

[00:01:17] Tommy Thomas: I had the privilege of meeting Carl probably, I don’t know, 10 or maybe 15 years ago. And I remember the afternoon in his home, he talked a lot about board governance. As I remember, he was a big fan of the Carver model. Are y’all a 10 on the Carver model, or have you operated an eight or nine?

[00:01:32] Alvin Sanders:   We’re a 12 and a half. We are off the scale because of Carl’s training.  And I am a dyed-in-the-wool Carver policy governance Kool-Aid drinker. 

[00:01:45] Tommy Thomas: Did you have knowledge of the Carver Model before you came into the CEO role? 

[00:01:49] Alvin Sanders: I knew of it at Evangelical Free Church because we used it. But, to me, that was the one-on-one level. And working with Carl and World Impact, I feel like I’m a grad student in it now.

[00:02:02] Tommy Thomas:  Take me into your and Carl’s relationship. How often do y’all get together or meet or talk and what does that look like?

[00:02:12] Alvin Sanders: We have a standing phone call, at 1 p.m. Eastern, 10 a.m. Pacific, every Monday. And, we don’t necessarily do it every time, but it’s there. And then if we need it, we talk to each other.

If not, then we move forward. But usually, we talk anywhere from one to four times a month. And we just check in and see how each other is doing personally. I give him updates on relevant things that he needs to know about from the organization’s perspective, and then he gives insights and contributions to what he feels we need to be considering as an organization as well.

But I think the most critical relationship in the organization is between the CEO and the board chair. 

[00:03:02] Tommy Thomas: So how close of a friend can the CEO be to the board chair? Where’s that balance? 

[00:03:09] Alvin Sanders: You at least need to like each other. And that sounds silly, but I’ve known some CEOs and board chairs that don’t like each other. You don’t have to be best friends. Like I wouldn’t say Carl and I are best friends by any means but  Carl and I enjoy each other’s company. And if I wasn’t CEO and if he wasn’t board chair, we would still be two people who would get together and hang out with one another.

You know what I mean? Yeah. So, you have to have a strong relationship at least to the point where you like each other to the extent that you enjoy each other’s company. 

[00:03:44] Tommy Thomas: Take me into your agenda for your board meetings. Do you set those, or do you and Carl collaborate? 

[00:03:52] Alvin Sanders: Yes, me and Carl collaborate.

[00:03:55] Tommy Thomas:   Do you have term limits for your members, and do you have term limits for your board chair? 

[00:04:07] Alvin Sanders: No, we’re contrarian that we have an annual signup every year. So if you’re asked to be a board member, a river of life, I’m not there anymore at World Impact.

We asked you to serve for one year. And then if everything went well, we asked you to serve for another year. And the result has been, Carl’s probably been a board member for 25 years. And then there are other people who were board members for only a year because things didn’t work out well.

So we like that because it gives you the flexibility to keep on strong board members for as long as you need to. Because to me, it never made sense. You’ve been a great board member. Oh, it’s been three years. You got to rotate off. Why? If it works for their life and it works for the life of the organization, there’s no reason to rotate people off.

And then there have been people who’ve served for a couple of years and then they said, Alvin, I got to take this year off, and then they come back. So that’s been our philosophy. 

[00:05:10] Tommy Thomas:  How do y’all identify new board members? 

[00:05:15] Alvin Sanders: It’s mainly me asking, first working the networks that the board has, some other people that they may know that may want to be a part of World Impact.

It’s me working the networks of those I know and my colleagues. It’s really just working networks of folk looking for the types of people that may be interested in serving on the World Impact Board. 

[00:05:41] Tommy Thomas:  What kind of advice are you giving somebody that calls you next week and says they’ve been asked to join a board of XYZ nonprofit?  What questions are you telling them they need to get answered? 

[00:05:53] Alvin Sanders: They need to ask the board chair and the CEO, first, I would never talk to either one of them. I would talk to both of them at the same time. And the first question I would ask them is, what’s your philosophy? Because 90% of boards don’t have a clue what their philosophy is on board leadership.

So what’s your philosophy on board leadership? What’s my expected contribution of time, talent, and treasure to the board? So those would be the two major things that I would ask.

[00:06:33] Tommy Thomas: I’m asking people these days about bringing younger people onto boards. And philosophically, do you have a position on that? And then I’ll ask a follow-up. 

[00:06:46] Alvin Sanders: Yes, we try to, our board, we try to hold it at nine, because we think a smaller board is better for getting things done. And I think in terms of thirds a third of our board, we want gender diversity, a third of our board, we want age diversity, a third of our board, we want racial diversity.

And then we want half and half, what I would say, marketplace people. These are business folk, and then the other half ministry people. Because if you have all marketplace people, the ministry gets lost. It’s been my experience. And if you have all ministry people, the business of running the organization gets lost and it loses knowledge and expertise.

So that’s my philosophy of how you have you bring a board together. But you definitely need people especially since I just read the other day that millennials now are the most dominant generation numbers-wise. It’s no longer Baby Boomers. It’s never been my generation, Gen X. We’re the forgotten generation, I think.

Nobody gives a rip about Gen X, but Millennials now are it and you’re just being silly if you don’t have Millennials on your board 

[00:07:58] Tommy Thomas:   How do y’all onboard at World Impact, new board members?

[00:08:05] Alvin Sanders:  Usually if somebody is passed along to me or to Carl or whoever, Carl and I do an informal vetting of that person and check what their interest level is. Then Carl by himself takes them through a formal board vetting.

Then if they pass that test, we bring them in to do a preview. Before they make a commitment, Hey, won’t you just come in and sit in on a board meeting and see what you think, then after the preview, Carl and I sit down with them and field any questions, concerns, or comments they may have.

And then if they’re wanting to be part of the board, then the next board meeting that they come in we’ll vote on them.


[00:08:56] Tommy Thomas:  You’ve probably got a small enough board that you don’t need executive committees. Do y’all ever have a use for an executive committee? 

[00:09:04] Alvin Sanders: Carver policy frowns against subcommittees, so we don’t form them unless we absolutely positively have to.

[00:09:15] Tommy Thomas: And what about executive session? Does your staff join you for part and then y’all dismiss the staff for more sensitive matters? What’s y’all’s take on that?

[00:09:25] Alvin Sanders: If there’s an executive session, I’m not in there. In our philosophy, it’s board only. Only the board calls executive session and that means no staff in the room.

[00:09:35] Tommy Thomas:   What about the board meeting? Do you bring your cabinet to the meeting? Do they present or what does that look like? 

[00:09:46] Alvin Sanders: The person who usually makes an appearance either by video or in person at some point is my chief operating officer. When we talk about the financial portion. Other than that, the executive team only comes in as needed.

[00:09:59] Tommy Thomas:  How do you or Carl draw a quiet quiet board member into the conversation? 

[00:10:11] Alvin Sanders: I don’t know if I have any. I’m trying to think. We have great dialogue and discussion and everybody seems to contribute. Yeah, I’m trying to think. I don’t think anybody sits on the sidelines because of the understood expectation of Carver. Like when you go through the screening process and we talk to people, we’ve let people know this is not you know a sit-back board.

There are monitoring reports you have to read. We want you to contribute. We want you to express yourself. And so we built a culture of collaboration and contribution that we don’t really have any quiet board members. 

[00:10:51] Tommy Thomas: What about strategic planning? Is your board involved in that under the Carver Model?

[00:10:56] Alvin Sanders:  No. My team and I lead the staff and the organization in the strategic planning process. 

[00:11:05] Tommy Thomas:   What did that look like last time around? 

[00:11:09] Alvin Sanders: We are big into the objectives and key results system. Where you set which, it started with Peter Drucker and management by objectives.

And then there have been several sort of offshoots of that, but that’s the foundation. We utilize the offshoot that was started in the tech sector. Where you listen, you list organizational-wide objectives and organizational annual objectives, and then each team then quarterly writes an objective for their team and the key results from that objective, which is connected to the larger overarching organizational objective.

[00:11:54] Tommy Thomas: How does a CEO evaluation work under y’all’s system? 

[00:11:59] Alvin Sanders: They have an executive session. They have an annual objective section, but every quarter I have to submit what’s called a monitoring report, which is based on the executive limitations, which are found in our handbook which are policies in which the board has said, Alvin, these are the policies.

And then you need to report on several of these at each meeting. In fact, today, because our board meeting is coming up next week, the big lion’s share of my day today is working on our monitoring reports which I will submit to them so then they can read through them. And then next week we can have any discussions of whether they think I’m in compliance or out of compliance.

[00:12:52] Tommy Thomas: Okay, so that happens quarterly then?

[00:12:54] Alvin Sanders: It does. 

[00:12:57] Tommy Thomas: How have y’all handled financial accountability? A lot of boards are a little hesitant to ask hard questions sometimes. What does that look like at World Impact? 

[00:13:08] Alvin Sanders: Every quarter, one of my monitoring reports is called EL 4.

For financial condition and activities where every quarter I report on our financial condition. It’s three, four pages of things that I need to report on concerning our finances, and then the board members look over it and then if they have any questions, we discuss and analyze them. 

[00:13:32] Tommy Thomas: Under your model, how does the board get involved in either risk management or risk mitigation or do they?

[00:13:40] Alvin Sanders:   That’s a policy that I have to report on. Basically, they have questions about the policies around risk management and mitigation. And I report on them, and then they have a chance to read and respond. And they tell me whether I’m in compliance or not compliance with their expectation of me.

[00:13:59] Tommy Thomas: How do you and your senior team look at risk management or risk mitigation? Is that something that y’all discuss on an annual basis or a quarterly basis? 

[00:14:09] Alvin Sanders: It depends on how you define risk management and mitigation, but we would like to think that we’re trying to be on top of those things and ahead of those things before they become major hassles or issues.


[00:14:20] Tommy Thomas: And you mentioned early on your board member time, talent, and treasure. So you have the fundraising question with a prospective board member adequately before they join?

[00:14:31] Alvin Sanders: Yes, we ask all our board members to contribute something. We don’t put a number on it, but we want to say that all of our board members give to our organization.

We believe that’s a big deal. And we let the board member decide how much they want to contribute. 

[00:14:48] Tommy Thomas: What does fundraising look like for you? Do you leverage your board for fundraising, or is that kind of, once they give, do they?

[00:15:01] Alvin Sanders: No, we ask our board members to be actively involved in connecting us with people who may vibe with the mission of the organization and be willing to contribute revenue towards us being a success. We definitely involve our boards.

[00:15:17] Tommy Thomas: Let’s maybe close out a little bit with succession planning.  At what point should a board and a CEO begin to think about succession planning? 

[00:15:27] Alvin Sanders: All the time, from day one. One of the things that I’ve tried to instill, and since being President of World Impact since 2017, is to build a leadership pipeline. In every one of our major areas, I call it who’s your bus person.

If the bus comes by and hits you, it kills you in your dying breath, who are you going to say, such and such to take my place. Ideally, we’d like to see there be at least two to three internal candidates who could take the place of the person who’s leading that particular area. And in my case, I would like to think that, anyone on my executive team could have the ability to step into being a CEO if at the very least for an interim time until the board could find someone else to be my replacement.

So my bus people, if you’re on my team, you’re a bus person for me. 

[00:16:31] Tommy Thomas: And this may be hypothetical for you or you’ve probably seen it in other organizations, but when the CEO decides it’s time to retire or move on, what kind of time should there be between that announcement and the actual end date?

[00:16:48] Alvin Sanders: For me, I think ideally, whoever the CEO is, has identified someone who they want to follow them. And you announce it like a year before it happens. You say, hey, I’m riding off into the sunset. We’ve identified such and such to be my replacement. And then you have a quarterly phase-out.

That’s how I’d like to go out. I think I have a lot more years left than me, Tommy, but when it’s time to go, that’s the way I’d like to do it. 

[00:17:27] Tommy Thomas: What about the outgoing person sticking around as an advisor or an emeritus president? What’s been your experience or observation there? 

[00:17:36] Alvin Sanders: That’s exactly the setup I have at the old church that I planted.

I haven’t been Pastor at Riverside Church since 2007, but my wife and I still go there, and my family still goes there, and I’m Pastor Emeritus, and it works marvelously. If the pastor who follows you or the leader who follows you wants you there. That’s a huge if. And then you all have a great relationship where boundaries are set.

And I know when to stick my nose into things and when not to stick my nose into things. And I see myself as a reference book, when you need to use me, pull me off the shelf and use me. When you need to seek advice, it’s all driven by the present leader. I stay in my lane.

So as the emeritus person, you have to stay in your lane in order for this to work. And the leader who succeeds you, they have to be confident enough in their own skin. That they’re not threatened by you being there and they’re comfortable in bringing you into the leadership situations to speak into it.


[00:18:52] Tommy Thomas: Occasionally I get to speak to boards about succession planning and I often talk about the departing leader. And I guess one of my observations is that generally, the departing leader has probably more of his or her identity tied up in the CEO role than they would like to admit. How do you help a man or woman in that case?

[00:19:15] Alvin Sanders:   I don’t know if you can to be quite honest. It took me probably three years to remove pastor as an identity marker from me when I moved from the River of Life Church to the EFCA. And really, it’s a journey of spiritual maturity.

At least it was for me. To say my identity is in Christ and then Christ sends me on different assignments, but it’s all His church. It’s all His organization. It’s not mine. It’s His. And that’s the lesson that took me three years to learn. So that when I transitioned from the EFCA to World Impact, it was a much easier transition because I saw it more as my identity is in Christ, and I feel like God’s changing my assignment, so I’m okay.

[00:20:07] Tommy Thomas: Did Bill or anybody at your national office, did they come alongside you, or was there any help offered to you during that three years of rough water or were you on your own?

[00:20:18] Alvin Sanders:  They didn’t know it. Oh, okay. I didn’t tell them. I didn’t tell them. It was just a personal struggle of my own.

But I’m sure they would have if I would have let them know. 

[00:20:35] Tommy Thomas: What haven’t I asked you about board service and CEO relationships that you think my listeners need to hear?

[00:20:43] Alvin Sanders: I don’t know. You’ve been pretty thorough, man. You should have given me some pre-interview questions. 

[00:20:51] Tommy Thomas: You don’t need any pre-interview questions.

[00:20:52] Alvin Sanders: You made my brain do it out my ear. You’ve asked some pretty thorough things. I think we’ve covered the gamut of it, really. 

[00:21:00] Tommy Thomas: Okay, let me close with one then and here again, this goes back to the board chair, somebody calls you and they’ve been asked to, as they usually do move up to the chair role, they’ve probably been in line for a while.

What are you telling them that whatever you do, be sure you…

[00:21:21] Alvin Sanders: You won’t rise to the occasion. You will sink to the level of your preparedness. So we need to make sure that you’re prepared for the chair seat in order for you to be a success. Because a lot of people want the title of board chair, but they don’t want to do the role of board chair, if because that requires a different type of commitment and leadership contribution. So we want to prepare that person as best we possibly can for that leveling up that they’ll have to do.


In case you’re counting, this was Episode 98. And we’re getting closer to that milestone of 100 episodes. As I said last week, we have a very special guest for that episode. Someone who inadvertently had a major impact on my career. I’ll give you a hint at this person’s identity. She or he took their undergraduate degree from Cornell University. 

But before we get to episode 100, we have Episode 99. Our guest next week is Dr. Barry Corey, the President of Biola University. 

[00:22:37] Barry Corey: My father was a Pentecostal preacher in a hardscrabble town outside of Boston, Massachusetts. My parents did an unorthodox thing and allowed me to go to an all-boys Catholic preparatory school called St. John’s in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts. Had a great education there. The great contributions that Catholics have made to education and virtues and morals and the values that needed to be embedded in education.

“As the emeritus person, you must stay in your lane in order for this to work. And for the leader who succeeds you – they can’t be threatened by you being there.” -Alvin Sanders

Links and Resources

JobfitMatters Website

Next Gen Nonprofit Leadership with Tommy Thomas

Alvin Sanders – World Impact

Uncommon Church: Community Transformation for the Common Good by Alvin Sanders

Redemptive Poverty Work by Alvin Sanders

Bridging the Diversity Gap: Leading Toward God’s Multi-Ethnic Kingdom by Alvin Sanders


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