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National Recreation Foundation Board’s Intentional Transformation

By Kara Teising and Naree W.S. Viner, Koya Partners


The National Recreation Foundation (NRF) supports youth development through recreation – including camping, sports, kayaking, gardening, hiking, fishing, and more. With deep roots going all the way back to 1919, NRF’s philosophy is that getting kids active and outdoors builds healthy kids with bright futures. NRF believes all young people should have the opportunity to have positive recreation experiences, regardless of where they live or their social or economic status. When the benefits of these experiences are accessible to everyone, everywhere, they build strong kids and strong communities.

In the summer of 2019, Jonathan Scott, who served as chair of NRF’s Governance Committee, and John McCarter, who served as NRF’s Board President, restarted a conversation they’d been having over the prior two years. That conversation focused on the makeup of the Board of Trustees along many dimensions, including age, gender, ethnicity, race, geography, and profession. They believed that Board leadership should reflect a broad range of perspectives, expertise, world views, and lived experiences. Adopting this approach to leadership would enable NRF to better achieve its mission of increasing access to recreation opportunities and the benefits that accrue from them.

They reviewed recent nominations and calculated that, at the present rate at that time, it would take until 2035 before the Board would be fully transformed, which felt way too far into the future. Working closely with Executive Director Sophie Twichell, they drew Trustees Elsie McCabe Thompson and Joe Anderson, who was scheduled to succeed McCarter, into this critical conversation.

Scott, McCarter, McCabe, Anderson, and Twichell agreed that through a strategic board development process, NRF could enhance its impact and better achieve the organization’s mission to help more young people expand their experiences and life skills via recreational activities. Historically, the Board was comprised primarily of successful white businessmen, who might not have as complete an understanding of the experiences of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) youth, especially in terms of access to recreational spaces and activities. It was clear to the group that the Board would benefit from a wider range of perspectives. A reconstituted Board would better position NRF for greater impact – reaching more youth and changing more lives.

When NRF initiated the transformation of its Board last year, it was also marking its 100th anniversary. NRF sought Board members who understood the importance of kids being outside, playing, and being connected with nature, particularly in this age of technology. The outdoor recreation field has grown and evolved over the last 15 years, and NRF is committed to engaging the most qualified leaders to ensure it is doing the best work possible.

The Road to a New Board

NRF wanted a mix of people on its Board, but it needed to be the right people. This started with a passion for youth development. NRF also sought to add public health, outdoor recreation, and social justice experts into the mix. The team from NRF envisioned bringing on trustees who could inform NRF’s work in credible, thoughtful ways. They also understood that a Board informed by multiple perspectives would approach challenges and opportunities more creatively and effectively.

Recognizing the need for deeper, more varied experience on the Board, the NRF team vowed to recruit more trustees with solid recreation and/or youth development backgrounds, as well as several individuals with investment expertise to provide succession of the fiduciary oversight of NRF’s nearly $50M endowment portfolio. NRF also sought at least one trustee with an academic background who could bring that critical skill set to the table. In addition to this expertise, NRF wanted all new recruits to be passionate about serving young people experiencing economic or health challenges.

NRF needed a plan – a road map that outlined where it was and where it wanted to go. NRF created a matrix/spreadsheet with the details of its current roster of trustees: each person’s name, gender, age, ethnicity, geographic region, length of service on the Board, and area of expertise, so it could readily identify the gaps that needed to be filled. NRF set a goal to boost diversity by recruiting new Board members and pledged that within 5 to 8 years, NRF would undergo a 100% turnover of its Board. Today’s young people are tomorrow’s leaders, and this new Board would be better positioned to effectively serve their needs.

As NRF considered this project, they faced some challenges:

  • Transitioning and concluding service for passionate and dedicated long-serving trustees as the Board moved to term limits of three renewable three-year terms;
  • Casting a wider net for a set of criteria to reflect diversity of age, geography, ethnicity, race, gender, and profession;
  • No longer relying on the same spheres of influence they had always used to recruit new candidates; and
  • Integrating new trustees into NRF’s history and culture through structured mentorships.

Utilizing Koya Partners

NRF decided to retain executive search firm Koya Partners to bring its expertise, objectivity, discipline, and high-quality network to this project. Koya is guided by the belief that the right person at the right place can change the world, which aligned with NRF’s goals for this initiative. Managing Directors Kara Teising and Naree Viner partnered with NRF on this project.

NRF shared with Koya its goals for transforming the Board and the matrix detailing aspects of the current group of Board members. Koya’s task was to develop a list of possible Board members who satisfied the search criteria. The matrix was a helpful tool used to identify the gaps that existed and provide a “big picture view” of what NRF’s Board had, as well as what it was seeking. Koya also developed a “position statement” about NRF and its mission to share with potential Board members and contacts in the field who could provide referrals.

Leveraging Koya’s existing network of contacts in the fields of environmental education, conservation, and youth development, the Koya team developed a target list of potential Board candidates. The team also conducted original research to reach out into specific geographical areas and types of organizations which would have leaders with the areas of expertise NRF sought to add to its Board.

Then COVID-19 hit. Scott, McCabe, McCarter, Anderson, and Twichell – the working group for this project – were planning to travel around the country to interview candidates and then, suddenly, travel was halted. But the silver lining was that the prospects they wanted to reach were also at home, thus streamlining the process of contacting them and arranging virtual interviews. Within just a few weeks, Koya presented a set of promising prospects for the group’s consideration. The Koya team had conducted introductory Zoom conversations with top prospects to share background about NRF and gauge initial interest in the Board opportunity. The NRF team then selected candidates from the pool presented by Koya to conduct its own interviews via Zoom.

At the NRF Board meetings in spring and summer 2020, eight trustee candidates were approved to join the Board, including:

  • a consultant from Seattle with extensive partnership expertise in the outdoor recreation field;
  • a Phoenix-based tribal law and water rights attorney;
  • the dean of the College of Natural Resources at North Carolina State University;
  • an investment banker from the Bay Area with nationally recognized investment expertise;
  • the Founder of Latino Outdoors, a Latinx-led group that engages Latino communities in the outdoors;
  • an investment professional from New Jersey;
  • a PhD in public health focused on air quality concerns in Houston, and;
  • an Oakland-based nonprofit CEO with expertise in philanthropy, strategic planning, and outdoor recreation.

Of these eight new NRF trustees, 50% are women. Seven of the eight identify as persons of color, as well as represent new geographic regions where NRF sought representation. 100% offer specific expertise desired by NRF.

The Board – in collaboration with Koya – also debated how to structure the transition of long-serving trustees who gradually would be rotating off the Board. They opted for a well-known inventory concept, FIFO – “first in, first out” – where the trustees who had served the longest would be the first to rotate off. NRF also implemented a mentoring program, where each new Board member was assigned a seasoned trustee mentor to provide guidance and serve as a sounding board for new trustees.

Koya did more for NRF than provide names and resumes. Created with help from Koya, NRF developed a process for addressing board vacancies. This process will enable NRF to maintain the same quality of recruitment going forward when it searches for individuals with varied backgrounds and expertise but who all share a passion for serving kids.

The driving force for these changes: the NRF’s Board leaders and Executive Director wanted to do more for more young people and recognized that to achieve that goal, NRF required Board members with a more comprehensive understanding of the needs of today’s youth. Some new trustees have come from underserved communities themselves, providing unique insight into the challenges faced by our nation’s more vulnerable children.

The expansion of Board membership from 17 to 27 occurred during 2019 and 2020. The Board was “remade” in under two years. Going forward, the process developed in partnership with Koya to seek board talent will be an ongoing and constant responsibility of the Trusteeship and Governance Committee.

Seeing Positive Results Already

NRF already is seeing great benefits from its newly expanded Board. For instance, new trustees have identified excellent programs across the country for NRF support which were not previously on NRF’s radar. Further, the Foundation is in a better position to engage in new partnerships, due to trustees with strong partnership experience and wider networks of contacts. NRF now has trustees onboard who are thought leaders in equitable outdoor recreation and youth development, who provide NRF with enhanced credibility in this space. Trustees with medical, environmental justice and public health perspectives provide NRF with new lenses for responding to crucial issues like the impact of COVID-19 on underserved communities and how NRF can help vulnerable youth in impoverished communities connect with the outdoors or go to summer camp.

NRF’s long-term vision is to connect more kids with opportunities to get active and get outdoors. Young people today are attached to their screens, and many suffer from depression, anxiety, and isolation, which may be worsening due to the ongoing pandemic and continued school closures. NRF has an important role to play as expert, thought leader, and convener. Even as a relatively small foundation, NRF is actively working to maximize its impact. NRF seeks to fund more programs in more communities, to allow more kids to enjoy the vast benefits of playing outside, riding a bike, going to camp, learning to fish or grow vegetables – with the skills, tools, learnings, and confidence-boosting that go along with those adventures.

With its refreshed Board and commitment to equitable access to recreation spaces and programs, NRF is well-positioned for the future.

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