From the Commonweal Board

Commonweal Board Member Katherine Fulton writes about her experience of serving on the board and how it has shaped her understanding of our organization.

by Katherine Fulton, Commonweal Board of Directors

Even a casual observer of Commonweal knows that we are known increasingly for healing circles. I have not yet participated in a Commonweal healing circle, save one: the board of directors.

A board of directors? Really? Yes, I am serious. At this extraordinary moment in the world and at Commonweal, the board has evolved into a healing circle—with Commonweal the organization in the center. 

Over the course of a long career, I have served on at least twenty boards, and as a strategy consultant I have seen dozens of boards in action. But I have never been in a board room that feels like this one. It’s worth exploring why, because I think our board’s current culture is a fascinating glimpse into Commonweal’s essence, especially at this moment of growth and change. 

I believe that any great nonprofit is a wisely led and managed organization surrounded by a community. Nonprofit boards champion the mission, while stewarding the organization’s assets and setting a direction for the future. Boards substitute for owners in the private sector—ultimately accountable for making sure the organization can bestow the gifts it exists to offer. 

It is never easy, however, to fully understand an organization’s assets and potential. In Commonweal’s case, this is even more true than usual.

I remember a few years ago, in a New School talk, the great environmental leader Paul Hawken talked about how rare Commonweal is. Over the past 20 years, most nonprofits have been urged to focus, to go after achievable and measurable objectives. Commonweal, meanwhile, has clung to its broad mission: to heal ourselves and heal the earth, as Michael has long said. We have hosted a broad array of visionary leaders and programs, who do their work with autonomy, but are held together by a magic net of purpose, culture, norms, relationships and values. 

In other words, Commonweal’s institutional design, structure and culture are among its most important innovations. How Commonweal works is as important as the substance of the work itself. 

A newcomer to the board or the community inevitably makes their way toward the essential questions that follow from this assertion: What, really, is the secret sauce, the magic that has made this place work for more than 40 years? What makes the whole more than the sum of the parts? 

Commonweal’s current board has circled around these questions in recent years, seeking to understand Commonweal’s past and present and exploring possible futures. Slowly, I have understood there was an important clue in the process itself, as we “circled.”

Yes, we have agendas, and we hear financial reports, as all boards do. Yes, we hear staff updates. Yes, we are navigating major organizational transformations, reckoning with the meaning of a new intergenerational partnership and emerging vision. 

Yet at the same time, we have learned equally as much about what makes Commonweal special in how we have gone about this. When I read about healing circles, I was struck by the conditions that create deep trust and intimacy: 

  • A safe and accepting environment
  • Kindness and respect that honors the uniqueness of each individual
  • Listening with attention, speaking with intention
  • Relying on the power of silence to access guidance 
  • Tending to the well-being of the whole.

These characteristics go a long way in describing the experience of serving on the Commonweal board now. As Michael has said, “if it provides refuge, touches your heart, and guides you on your path, it is a healing circle.” Yes, exactly. That’s how our board feels. 

Commonweal’s path ahead emerges, step by step, in a creative community in conversation with itself and the world. All the lives Commonweal has touched and will touch in the years to come are held with a sacred gentleness.

Writing this might feel a bit crazy if I didn’t know that my fellow board members share my gratitude for the privilege of serving together in this way.

“There is some quality that cannot be fully described that keeps this board respectful of uncertainty and humble in the recognition that chaos is part of living,” says my fellow board member Angela Oh. “Finding that there is still so much more to learn about collective work has been both affirming and healing.” 

Another board member, Jaune Evans, describes the blessing of the board as “an experience of deep community based on healing, spiritual friendship, and service in the world. Curiosity abounds!”

It is as though we are on a learning journey together. Along the way, in discovering how to do our work together, we have uncovered much about the work that is Commonweal’s to do. Our job is to create ever more room for this magic in a world sorely in need of it.