Forrest Alton

The Truth About Board Service

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From nonprofit CEO… to board member… to board chair… and now as co-owner of a consulting firm that focuses on issues related to organizational efficiency, growth, development, and change, I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time in board rooms. Perhaps no experience has re-shaped my thinking about the role of boards – and specifically board chairs – as much as my two-year term as the board chair of Together SC.

As my term comes to a close, I’ve taken some time to reflect on lessons learned, which might be best summarized by Board Source’s assessment that “…the board has an impact on organizational performance, and that two particular board characteristics matter most: the board’s understanding of its roles and responsibilities, and the board’s ability to work as a collaborative team toward shared goals.” Leading With Intent, 2017 National Index of Nonprofit Board Practices 

Here are a few personal observations that are intended to add some real-life context to this idea. Whether you are a nonprofit executive, current board member, or someone considering serving on a nonprofit board, I hope it helps.

1. Setting Expectations and Measuring Performance Matters.

I’m guessing your organization has expectations for itself (strategic plan) and its leader (annual goals, job description, etc.). The board may even conduct an annual performance review of the CEO. Crazy, right? Yet, personal experience tells me that such deliberately stated expectations and performance evaluations rarely exist for the board. Far too often, training, capacity building, and communication about board member expectations begins and ends at board orientation. It’s equally rare to find an organization with a formal plan to expand learning, encourage growth, and improve the performance of board members. 

Together SC has developed a board dashboard to track board participation and engagement, and in my role as chair, I open every meeting with a quick review of where we are. It lists board attendance, participation in events, and individual giving. Keeping this information front-and-center helps hold us accountable. When there were gaps, I knew it was my responsibility as chair to pick up the phone and gently remind my fellow members of their commitments. 

2. Succession Planning and Leadership Development Are Not Just for CEOs.

The importance of the relationship between an organization’s executive and its board chair is well documented, as is the importance of board chairs in defining organizational culture. Why then are board chair transitions not consistently met with the same rigor and effort that is put into pending executive transitions? Your organization probably has a succession plan for executives. But what about for the much more frequent transition of board chairs? Organizations would do themselves a favor to spend equal energy planning for and executing this annual(ish) transition. 

Prior to beginning my term as Together SC’s board chair, I was fortunate to be able to spend time with, talk to, and learn from the outgoing chair. Those conversations expedited my learning curve. I also took the time to call each of my fellow board members personally to check in on their perceptions of the board and the future of the organization. Taking that time on the front end allowed me to be a better leader. 

3. Every Board is a Giving Board.

I’ve lost count of the number of executives who tell me “our board is not a giving board.” Yet, even those organizations who say such a thing are familiar with the tried and true board adages “Time, Talent, Treasure” or “Give, Get, Get-Off.” In one case, giving is defined broadly to include time and talent; in the other, the meaning of give is more direct. In either case, giving (of something) is essential, and over time, I have become convinced that every board must position themselves as a “giving board.” Saying otherwise sends the wrong message to current members, future members, and those the organization serves. 

Achieving 100% financial giving from board members is important, but I must admit it’s incredibly frustrating when giving financially is the ONLY criteria used to determine engagement. Beyond writing a check, board members also need to GIVE 100% of their time, energy, and positive representation they committed to when agreeing to serve. We have a term for those who write checks (thank you!) but contribute in no other substantive way. That term is donor, not board member. 

4. Create space for meaningful engagement. 

You are no doubt familiar with the governance functions a board is required to perform, but there is more to the story. Too often I see organization’s failing to create space for deeper, more meaningful dialogue and engagement. Rough calculations suggest that boards meet for 12-20 hours over the course of the year. Sometimes this is in monthly, one-hour meetings (12x1 = 12). Two of the boards I serve on meet only twice a year, but for the better part of a day each time (2x8 = 16). Many boards operate in the middle of these examples. 

I’ll take some heat for advocating for longer meetings, but in the end, how can we expect to tackle the really difficult issues AND perform the governance functions of the organization in an hour or two? It’s simply not realistic. Thus, boards default to things that “must” be done (finance update, program report, etc.) and pass on the responsibility of having difficult discussions. In this all-too-common scenario, neither the board members nor organizational leadership feels fulfilled in their service. 

At Together SC, one of my first acts as chair was to restructure our meetings to be four hours, four times a year (4x4 = 16). In the first two hours we focused on the traditional governance responsibilities while reserving the second half of the meeting to dive deep into an identified, single topic. This fundamentally changed the way our board approached meetings and significantly improved our level of engagement and thought on these identified key conversations. Trying to fly through a one hour monthly meeting short changes the deep thought required to actually lead… and it doesn’t do much for building relationships and rapport either. 

5. Organizations Grow and Change - So Should Your Board.

Our firm does a lot of strategic planning work for nonprofits, and every engagement starts with the organization telling us they are looking for new, innovative strategies and approaches to propel their work forward. I’m always struck that very rarely is such a process followed (or preceded) by corresponding adjustments to board membership. Periodic check-ins to ensure that board members still align with you and where you are headed can have great value – for you and for them. 

Organizational needs are constantly changing, and as a result, the type of board members you need is also changing. Many organizations allow board members to serve multiple terms of multiple years, and some don’t have term limits at all. I think about how much my personal journey has changed over the past decade – likely yours too. Some of my passions are the same, but other interests ebb and flow. A chance for all of us to check in and be sure our passions and visions are still aligned would benefit the organization and the board members sitting around the table. 

At the end of a seven year run serving on Together SC’s board, I’m proud to say that neither the organization nor Forrest are the same as they were when that service began. Frankly, if they were, I’d have lots of questions. 

6. Make a Commitment.

Now for some real talk, board member to board member. Counting Together SC, I currently serve on three boards. Sometimes I’m worried that it’s two too many. My time as Together SC’s board chair reaffirmed just how much organizations need us to be present. When board meetings and subcommittee meetings don’t have quorums and can’t act, the organization suffers. When big discussions are planned and half the board doesn’t show, the organization suffers. When board members are counted on to reach out to a donor and don’t follow through, the organization suffers.  

So, do us all a favor. Start saying “no.” If you can’t commit, that’s OK, we’d rather know on the front end. I have endless respect for my friends and colleagues over the years who have stepped up and said “you know what, I just don’t have the time to commit to this right now.” But, if you decide to serve on a board, then please, commit to that service 100%. Until I was the one taking the time required to plan agendas and lead board meetings, I short changed how important it is to own that truth! 

A note to the executives on this point: when someone is being truthful to you and suggests they are over committed, here’s the appropriate response sequence… shake hands, say thank you, and move on. Please stop trying to convince us to join/stay on the board or the committee by telling us we won’t have that much to do. It sends the wrong message to everyone involved (see #3 above). 

PS ~ I did a presentation last year at the Aspen Action Forum (Aspen, CO) that highlighted many of these same ideas. You can download the corresponding handout here. And, of course, I welcome your comments and feedback on anything I’ve shared here. Just email me at 

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Achieving the Impossible 

The Path to Equitable Health Outcomes

Morgan Roberts, Intern

I recently joined the 1000 Feathers team and was given the opportunity to listen to 1000 Feathers president Forrest Alton talk about equity in the healthcare system. This is not something that I would have claimed to know much about, but after hearing his speech, I believe it is a conversation that we all should have. 

“Talking about equity and health equity and reducing health disparities, requires us to get our hands dirty and get comfortable with being uncomfortable.” 

That was how Forrest dove into his talk at the Presbyterian College School of Pharmacy in January.  

Equity is a multi-faceted, messy issue that stems from generations of institutional, systemic barriers put in place to separate people by race, class, or gender. So how can we do a better job of addressing health equity? 

Here are four tips that Forrest gave during his speech:  

1. Acknowledge the Challenge 

“We have to acknowledge that health disparities and inequities are not the result of (s)he made good decisions, and (s)he didn’t.” 

It’s so much more complicated than that! To get a better understanding, we must dive deep into existing data, monitor history and trends, and explore as much as we can. This requires us to be life-long learners, questioning everything and understanding the journey that people have to go through. We need to recognize the role that we can, and should play in this journey. 


2. Get Proximate 

“If you are willing to get closer to people who are suffering, you will find the power to change the world”  –Bryan Stevenson (colleague and friend of Forrest)

Get close, get out of the classroom. Talk to people. Learn their stories, find out what the challenges are right from the source. This might mean holding community forums, interviews, focus groups, or town hall meetings. It might just mean getting out from behind your desk and talking with people. You have to be willing to get proximate and get your hands dirty to get the results you seek. It is important to invite the people who are suffering the most into the conversations about solutions. 

3, Keep Learning 

“I left Coastal Carolina with my undergraduate degree and my chest puffed out, confident that I knew everything. I left my first job in Georgetown, South Carolina three years later very sure that I knew nothing.” 

We are life-long learners–this has to be true. Over time we have learned that sometimes, something that seems like it’s helping can actually cause a bigger gap of disparity to grow. We cannot just put forth a solution and move on. We must always be learning–from the past, from our mistakes, from others. Learning how to do things better, how to fix the mistakes, and how to improve. We can always do better. 

4. Accelerate Diversification 

“Spend time with people who don’t think like you, look like you, and act like you–that is the only path forward to solving issues around equity and diversity.” 

You can’t solve every problem by yourself, but you can become a part of a community, part of a different group of people at the table who are having conversations about these issues. Tackling the real issues that people in communities are facing isn’t something that should be done alone. Reach out, partner, engage, build a bigger tent. 

To listen to the full speech and learn more about equity in healthcare, click here

Forrest Delivers Hometown Commencement Address

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Earlier this summer, I had one of the greatest honors of my life. I was invited to give the commencement address at my high school alma mater (shout out to the class of 1995!). As I told the graduating seniors that night, it was an experience that I will never forget. The benefit of time and distance has taught me that little LaFargeville Central High School, situated in a town with only one traffic light (one side blinks yellow, the other side blinks red) prepared me extraordinary well to compete in a global world. In addition to some personal reflections, I tried to leave the graduates with four things that can help them on their journey. I encouraged them to go out and: 

  1. Find your why;

  2. Find ways to continue learning;

  3. Find your voice (and be bold enough to use it once you find it);

  4. Find balance.

This is probably a list we could all benefit from revisiting every now and then. If you have any interest in listening, you can do so here. I’d love to hear your thoughts!

An Open Letter to Don Flowers

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“It’s good to be blessed. It’s better to be a blessing.” – anonymous

More than 20 years ago, in the early 1990s, conversations were taking place among a few committed citizens in South Carolina - all concerned with the high teen birth rate in the state. As the stories have been told to me, this was a small group. A very small group. Maybe six people at the most. Joy Campbell, who would ultimately become the founding executive director of the South Carolina Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy (SC Campaign), had called everyone together.

Notably, the group included a Baptist minister from Greenville...Don Flowers.

Somewhere along the way, Don – in a fit of weakness – agreed to become the first board chair of the SC Campaign, circa 1994. Data from the state health department reminds us that in that year, nearly 9,000 young women in South Carolina under the age of 20 became mothers.

Fast forward 20+ years to 2017 where the data shows there were 3,696 births to teen mothers in our state. A decline that exceeds 60%! Find me another public health issue that has seen such remarkable progress over the last two decades… there aren’t many! Don Flowers is truly one of a very few who can say he has been involved with the organization and the effort since day one. Literally, from the first meeting. As he and his wife pack a moving van today to head off to their next adventure north of the border (that's the US border, Nova Scotia to be exact), I hope he has time to read this note, because it wouldn’t be right to let him pull away without an appropriate THANK YOU!

Don will deflect any credit for this massive success story, but I’m not willing to let him.

Had the teen birth rate in our state not changed at all since 1994, think of the 10's of thousands of lives that would have lived out a different trajectory. It is not a stretch at all to say that Don’s willingness to say yes, his willingness to give his time and energy to this cause, resulted in improvements in the lives of thousands of young people – many of whom are now adults. After all, how often does one have the opportunity to reflect and know that the time and work you put in had such a direct and profound impact on thousands of other people?

Don will deflect any credit for this massive success story, but I’m not willing to let him.

There have been countless staff members, board members, and volunteers who have contributed notably to the work of the SC Campaign. They all deserve thanks and praise. But, none have exceeded Don’s tenure – as a board member, as a board chair (twice), a mentor, a thought leader, and a voice for change. None of them, none of us, have done as much as Don has done. Don likes to say that when he served as board chair the first time you could “put everyone in the state who was concerned about this issue in a phone booth.” By the time Don’s second term as board chair began in July 2007, just a few months after a young 20-something-year-old kid had taken over the role of executive director, the organization was hosting statewide conferences for 300+ people every year and reaching thousands more through training, education, and outreach. At some point in between his multiple stints as chair of the board, Don and his family moved to Charleston. That in and of itself opened many doors for me and the organization that wouldn’t have been opened otherwise – “…how bad can we be, our board chair is a Baptist minister from Charleston, SC!”

Don will deflect any credit for this massive success story, but I’m not willing to let him.

You’ve probably guessed who the 20-something-year-old kid was, and this is where the story takes a bit of a personal turn. The relationship that Don and I have formed over the last 10-plus years, beginning with that organizational transition in 2007 (even though we had met and interacted some several years before) is more special than words could ever explain. Don has been there for me personally and professionally, without hesitation, any time that I needed him to be – even times that I didn’t know I needed him to be. Don has been a friend, a mentor, a side-kick, a confidant, a voice of reason, a spiritual support, and so much more. He has been by my side, quite literally, through the highest of my highs and the lowest of my lows.

  • Need someone to talk through a big decision with… call Don.

  • Find out a family member or loved one is ill, or having surgery, or battling cancer… call Don.

  • Getting married… call Don and fly him to New York to officiate the ceremony.

  • Need a reality check, someone to put you in your place… “Forrest, Don is on line one.”

  • Need someone to lift you up in prayer… call Don.

  • Just want to vent a little bit… call Don.

  • Syracuse beats Wake Forest in (insert sport)… call Don.

There are times that people come into your life and when you take the time to look back and reflect, you know you wouldn’t be who you are today without them. That is true of Don’s involvement with the SC Campaign. More importantly, that is true of Don’s involvement with me. I honestly don’t know where I would be today without his guidance, wisdom, support, tough love, and occasional stubbornness.

Don will deflect credit for the role he has played in my personal success story too, but I’m not willing to let him.

I drove down to Charleston yesterday to say, “see you around.” I’m comforted knowing Don will still be no more than a phone call away (wait, they do have phones in Nova Scotia, right?), and I’m glad that I was able to give him a big hug yesterday before he left town. But, the blessings Don has given me, given the SC Campaign, and given to this entire state are just too incredible to keep to myself.

Godspeed, my friend. You are indeed a blessing! 

Midlands Anchor Features Upcoming Conference

Our President Forrest Alton recently sat down with Midlands Anchor to discuss the upcoming Taking the Non Out of Nonprofit conference scheduled for Sept. 13, 2017. Early bird registration is open through Aug. 9 so take advantage of the discount before it expires.

Pura Vida

I’ve been very fortunate in my life that for one reason or another – business meetings, sporting events, pleasure – I’ve traveled a great deal. I’m also fortunate that I have a life partner who also enjoys traveling. Heather and I have seen an awful lot together, and no matter where we travel or what the reason for the travel is, we always try to learn something new. A language, a tradition, a piece of history, something – especially when traveling abroad.

This time it’s Heather’s work that has taken us out of the country. She is teaching a study abroad course in Costa Rica right now, officially “Global USC in Costa Rica.” Of course, I had to join her for a few days.

Among other things, we have learned that Costa Rica’s official national motto is “Pura Vida.” The phrase translates literally to pure life, with other common iterations like full of life, or this is living! But, Costa Rica’s motto is better translated in action than in words. The locals don’t seem to stress about anything. Life is laid back, carefree, and most importantly optimistic. Pura vida means being thankful for what you have and not dwelling on the negative.

Caught in a torrential downpour walking to dinner? Pura vida.

Locked yourself out of the apartment? Pura vida.

Stuck on a bus with no air conditioning for four hours? Pura vida.

Can’t get the Internet to work and missed an important work email? Pura vida.

At some point we’ll return back to the hustle, bustle, and high stress of our jobs in the United States. I can only hope we are able sneak a little Pura vida through customs! We certainly could use a little in our lives long past our time here in Costa Rica.

Most likely, so could you. 

Look for the Helpers

We are barely three weeks into 2017 and what a year it has been already. I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect when Heather and I launched our consulting firm late in 2016, but it has, so far, been a journey like no other I’ve ever been on.

In a short time, our work has taken us across South Carolina and across the country.

  • On one of our projects, we’ve spent time reading, listening to residents, asking questions of the experts, and trying to better understand the challenges and barriers that exist to health and well-being in rural South Carolina. The challenges are real, significant, and deep-rooted.

  • Our team is back and forth weekly to Charlotte, NC working with a group of funders and philanthropists to develop a system of change that presents greater opportunity for the citizens of Mecklenburg County. Certainly not rural America, but the metro has its own challenges.

  • We are preparing to lead a board/staff retreat next week for a statewide nonprofit who is poised and ready to tackle the significant challenge of affordable, reliable housing in South Carolina.

  • Our travels have also taken us to Waco, TX, Tulsa, OK, and Washington, DC. All unique communities with their own challenges centered around race, poverty, and access to health, education, and financial resources.

What’s striking to me is that despite differences in size, region of the country, and demographics, the challenges in these communities are all very similar. From rural South Carolina, to metro-Charlotte, to the “heart of Texas;” all different communities with familiar challenges.

What’s even more striking is the massive number of helpers we have come into contact with. Without exception, one of the first things I notice when visiting a new community is that the helpers are already in place! So many kind and caring souls giving their all, dedicating financial resources and human capital to the causes that matter.

It was Mr. Rogers who reminded us that “when (you) see scary things… look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”


Having recently celebrated a “day of service” in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., it’s fitting to point out how many helpers there are among us. It’s also not lost on me that we are mere hours away from the Inauguration of the 45th President of the United States. To be sure, with so much uncertainty in front of us, those helpers will be more important than ever. So, my message to you today and in the days ahead is two-fold:

If you need help, whatever that means to you, please don’t be ashamed to reach out. If you are a helper, please don’t be afraid to stand up and make yourself available! 

A Look Back: Forrest Alton's 2014 TedTalk

In 2014 when Forrest Alton was serving as the CEO of the South Carolina Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, he gave an inspiring TedTalk in Columbia, SC where he encouraged the audience to be bold, be concerned, and be available to the young people in their lives. 

Forrest Alton Elected to My Carolina Board of Governors

My Carolina Alumni Association has elected Forrest L. Alton to its Board of Governors. Alton represents the second congressional district of Columbia, South Carolina.

The board of governors is the governing body of the University of South Carolina’s alumni association, a 501(c)(3) charitable organization established in 1846. The board promotes fellowship among the university’s graduates, establishes policies, provides strategic direction and holds fiduciary responsibility for the assets of My Carolina.

"Any success I have had in my career is due in large part to the education, networks, friends, and colleagues I gained during my time at the University of South Carolina,” Alton said. “I see this appointment to My Carolina’s Board of Governors as an opportunity to 'pay it forward' and give back to the University and its alumni that have done so much for me.”

Alton has been involved in public health and youth development efforts for more than 15 years. In 2007, he became the chief executive officer of the SC Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, a position he held for nearly 10 years. Under Alton’s leadership the organization saw substantial growth. Forrest recently launched a consulting firm, 1000 Feathers, which works helps nonprofits, philanthropists and social service organizations have greater impact in the communities they serve.

In 2010, Alton was recognized by The State newspaper as one of South Carolina’s “20-under-40 emerging leaders.”  In 2014, he was recognized by The Free Times as one of the “50 Most Influential People in Columbia.”  He is a Riley Institute Diversity Fellow, a Liberty Fellow and part of the Aspen Global Leadership Network.

Alton earned his master of public health from the university’s Arnold School of Public Health. In 2011, the school named him its Alumnus of the Year. He earned his bachelor of science from Coastal Carolina University, where he also was named a Distinguished Alumnus.

About My Carolina
My Carolina Alumni Association’s mission is to build a thriving community of actively engaged and connected alumni, students, faculty and supporters who give themselves in service to the university while carrying the Carolina tradition and spirit worldwide. For more information about My Carolina Alumni Association, visit

President Forrest Alton Featured in Tulsa World

During a recent visit to Tulsa, OK to work with the Tulsa Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, our President Forrest Alton had the opportunity to sit down with a reporter from Tulsa World to discuss progress made in South Carolina and what Tulsa can do to better address teen pregnancy. Several things he made very clear: 1) the solutions are in the community and 2) teen pregnancy prevention is not a moral issue; it's a public health issue. 

Read the full article here.

President Forrest Alton Appears on the Giving Connection

Our President Forrest Alton recently sat down with the Waco Foundation in Waco, Texas to give expert commentary on teen pregnancy prevention efforts across the country, specifically what he helped to accomplish in South Carolina through his role as CEO of the South Carolina Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. The full broadcast can be found below.

1000 Feathers Launches to Bridge Divide Between Strategy and Vision

With challenges mounting for those in the social service sector and pressure to perform at an all-time high, Forrest Alton and Heather Brandt have launched a new consulting firm, 1000 Feathers, to combat these challenges and assist nonprofits and social service organizations, thus bridging the divide between vision and strategy and leading to meaningful results and community change.

After spending the last 10 years serving as the Chief Executive Officer of the South Carolina Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, Forrest Alton stepped down earlier this year to focus his energy on launching this new firm. In partnership with his wife, Heather Brandt, Alton has formed a team that understands the importance of strategic thinking, planning and performance, and collectively brings more than 40 years of combined experience in communities – working directly with foundations, nonprofits and government agencies.

"Our main value is to always remain client-centered, to present an approach to problem solving that results in our team working with our clients, not for them,” said Alton, who is serving as the President of the new firm. “Collectively our team has learned a lot about what it takes to create measurable change in communities. Most importantly, we have learned that there’s a big disconnect between the needs of communities, the vision of philanthropists, and the organizational strategies in the social service sector.”

In addition to bringing the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors closer together, 1000 Feathers also seeks to provide aggressive leadership development to help prepare organizations to better handle a changing landscape.

“Projecting out over the next several years, we are beginning to realize the combined impact of retiring baby boomers, changing approaches to funding and philanthropy, and a more crowded than ever nonprofit sector. There’s a need to create a space for more strategic thinking, bigger and bolder visions, and data-driven decision making,” said Brandt. While Brandt will maintain her current positions within the University of South Carolina, she will also serve as the company’s owner and will contribute to all major research projects.

The work of 1000 Feathers is based on the premise that a strong vision combined with thoughtful strategy is the only path to measurable results and real community change. But, what Brandt and Alton have uncovered through their professional careers and service on multiple state and national boards, is that there are a lot of moving parts to the “strategy + vision = results” formula, and often organizations and communities never get to the end results they desire. To create a meaningful experience for their future clients, 1000 Feathers will offer services focused on four key areas: executive consultation and leadership training; strategic thinking and planning; market engagement and communications; and research development and organization expansion.