As part of its ongoing initiative sponsored by the Rita & Alex Hillman Foundation to recognize nurses in board leadership roles, the American Nurses Foundation interviewed Neville Strumpf, PhD, RN, FAAN. Strumpf is a professor of nursing and dean emerita of the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing. She serves as president of the Ralston Center Board of Directors, a Philadelphia-based organization committed to improving the health and quality of life of older adults in the city.
What was your path to the Ralston board presidency?
I spent much of my career at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Nursing leading large groups of people, doing strategic planning, and dealing with large budgets. My nursing knowledge and gerontology expertise combined with my extensive administrative experience feels like optimal preparation for leading this particular organization at this time. In one way or another, the work I’ve done all my life has prepared me for this board leadership role.
What key lessons have informed your tenure as board president?
Leading a nonprofit board is like running a family. You have to be mindful of everyone’s issues. You need exquisite interpersonal skills so you don’t offend people and so everyone feels like they’ve contributed.
It takes a while to get people to trust you to take even well-defined, organizationally valid strategic risks. Despite the fact that I have wonderful relationships with the board and was aware of this dynamic beforehand, I can’t just plow my way through and say, “This is what we’re going to do.”
There are important yet complex tensions between boards and staff. We have a very fine small professional staff composed of seven full-time people. The board’s role is strategic and fiduciary; and operations are the staff’s responsibility. There are lines between those roles. This has turned out to be more complicated than I realized.
What nursing-related values and skills do you bring to board leadership?
Values I’ve honed personally as a nurse and among the nurses I’ve trained include, above all, respect for people and a willingness to listen, compromise, and make decisions. These are all values of nursing and of any committed health professional. Some of my nursing-related skills include consensus-building, strategic planning, organizational leadership, knowledge of the elderly, and strong networks of connections cultivated over decades among colleagues at many community-based organizations involved in elder services in Philadelphia. These longstanding relationships helped Ralston develop its more expansive mission and service-focused partnerships.
What have you found especially gratifying about leading this board?
I’m very excited about our initiatives, launched in 2016, to make West Philadelphia a model age-friendly neighborhood. We’re working to make public parks and public places such as bus shelters safer and more inviting; increase access to aging resources and supports, and alleviate social isolation; and improve access to fresh food and strengthen social connections through communal cooking.
What’s on your wish list for an effective board member?
We’re a small nonprofit with a big mission, and we expect a lot from our board members in terms of their contribution of time and expertise.
Key traits for new board members include eagerness to be an advocate for the organization’s mission, willingness to participate and bring expertise to the board, readiness to make a financial commitment at whatever level they can, and desire to encourage and link us to others who might be interested in contributing.
Leadership readiness is also important. Board presidents truly shape organizations, and this leadership role can’t just be handed off to the next person in line. Every board should do leadership succession planning. You can’t and shouldn’t do this work forever! After we conclude our 200th anniversary celebrations, my next focus will be to identify and groom a successor board president who will continue to revitalize the Ralston Center.