All photos featured in this write-up were provided by and are the property of Wellpoint Care Network.

Spectrum Nonprofit Services partnered with Wellpoint Care Network to strengthen the organization’s governance model with the ultimate goal of creating a more strategic board.

The Mission

Wellpoint Care Network, formerly SaintA, is a highly respected human service agency with deep roots in Milwaukee. Known for its innovative practice of trauma informed care, Wellpoint Care has partnered with thousands of individuals and families to overcome the effects of historical and generational trauma. Wellpoint Care’s commitment to transform child- and family-serving systems led the organization to share its model with over 75,000 professionals, becoming known internationally as a leader in trauma informed care.

The Ask

In mid-2019, Spectrum Nonprofit Services was contacted by Wellpoint Care’s President and CEO, Ann Leinfelder Grove, with agreement from Board President, Mary McCormick, for assistance with taking board engagement “to the next level.” According to Leinfelder Grove: “When Mary and I discussed engaging the board in more robust discussion, we thought of Spectrum right away.” Building on its history of success, the organization was embarking on several major strategic initiatives and wanted to ensure the board was prepared to serve Wellpoint Care’s strategic goals in the most effective ways possible.

Wellpoint Care was interested in a framework for board engagement beyond basic fiduciary duties and the typical list of board roles and responsibilities.

The Approach

In addition to bringing years of experience with nonprofit management, planning, education and facilitation, Spectrum Strategy Consultant Shelly Schnupp proposed and delivered several approaches that would enhance the project’s success, including the following:

  • Develop a task force of board and staff leadership to champion the project and assist with planning project steps. This is an approach typically used by Spectrum to tailor its approaches to meet the needs of clients and build support for a project’s goals and process. It also leverages the skills of board and staff and encourages partnership in defining and carrying out the work. A Board Engagement Task Force, comprised of board and staff leadership was created. The task force actively worked with Spectrum to plan the project activities and serve as champions for the process.
  • Assess the board’s current levels of engagement including their perceptions and behaviors. Spectrum often uses this approach to gain knowledge of the current situation that will inform project approaches so that they work for groups and individuals—and save time. This was done by collecting and analyzing information through a board survey and by observing several board meetings in progress.
  • Engage the board in learning about governance beyond fiduciary work by utilizing a strong governance model that addresses the complexity of nonprofits and governance and presents actionable approaches to building the board’s engagement in ways that add value. Having experience with a broad range of nonprofit governance models, Schnupp recommended Governance as Leadership: Reframing the Work of Nonprofit Boards by Chait, Ryan and Taylor as a good model for Wellpoint Care. Spectrum endorses this model for its clarity, applicability and research basis. The Board Engagement Task Force members read Governance as Leadership and encouraged other board members to do so—and many did. The board engaged in learning more about the model at a board retreat, where they wrestled with the three modes of governance outlined in the book (fiduciary, strategic and generative) and identified ways to incorporate these concepts and approaches, especially those beyond fiduciary, to improve board engagement. According to Ann, “It was a great fit for our goals and remains to be so.”

To conclude the process, Spectrum developed a final report with recommendations for continued work by the board.

The Results

Shifting board norms and behaviors is no simple undertaking. Many of Wellpoint Care’s board members had served on the board for four or more years and the majority had served on other boards as well. Few were aware of Governance as Leadership but most were eager to learn.

Follow-up with Wellpoint Care just over two years later involved repeating the initial survey with current board members, most of whom served during the initial process. In addition, Leinfelder Grove was interviewed and a focus group discussion was held with a group of five board members who served during the board engagement project. Finally, Schnupp had the opportunity to shadow a regular board meeting to observe these governance principles in action.

So, has the board’s behavior changed? Consider the following comments by board members:

  • Governance as Leadership approaches have allowed the board to be more collaborative with the CEO.
  • It’s “gotten traction” because a steady stream of new ideas have emerged. Without the frame Governance as Leadership offers, it would have been harder.
  • During our recent retreat a board member suggested: “Let’s have a more generative conversation.” This provides greater license for people to share their perspectives.
  • We ask for more generative conversations. The term “generative” is used more often and correctly. Board members know what it means.

When asked to rate the Wellpoint Care board for its adherence to eleven good governance principles consistent with Governance as Leadership, scores increased in all but two areas and the two decreases were slight. Leinfelder Grove offered the following:

  • Board members have a framework to operate within. They gained confidence in knowing what to do.
  • Board members become ready for change as they appreciate the need for rotation, new ideas.

Leinfelder Grove reported that the board agenda was changed shortly after project completion to encourage more strategic and generative discussions.

The following behavior, observed by Schnupp at a recent board meeting, is a good example of a level of engagement new to Wellpoint Care and not often found among nonprofit boards:

Wellpoint Care’s capital campaign is co-chaired by three board members who presented the update at the board meeting, noting that it was their “first grown-up test.” The co-chairs promoted board giving, offered pointers on how to connect to others, and noted how important it was to use their involvement in the campaign to “build your board member muscle.”

Spectrum believes that the combination of a comprehensive yet easy to grasp governance model, tailored approaches to engaging the board, and use of assessment data based on the board’s perceptions have put the board on track for deeper engagement that will strongly benefit the organization in the long run. While the Governance as Leadership model served as a strong catalyst to change, other project approaches served to connect the board to this resource in ways that fueled the board’s interest and reach for greater engagement.

Reflecting on the outcomes of our process, Leinfelder Grove offered the following: “What we did was foundational, and we are already at the next level from where we were headed. We were very pleased with the expert consulting we received and would recommend Spectrum Nonprofit to other nonprofits.”

We slow down for deeper dives where there is no roadmap. There is more space for “bigger conversations” and more robust discussions.

Board MemberWellpoint Care Network