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Why Nonprofit Board Diversity Matters: A Q&A Guide

Diversity is one of those buzzwords that you hear a lot in nonprofit circles. What does it actually mean? Why is it important? With all the challenges nonprofits grapple with every day, is it something to prioritize? And if so, how? The truth is that for a variety of reasons, the most diverse nonprofit boards are the strongest. It is crucial that leadership learn best practices for diversity and inclusion on the board of directors.

We will answer all this and more in this article. Feel free to skip to the topics below or read the entire article for a full view.

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Nonprofit board diversity is a collection of ethnic, religious, age, gender, education, and economic characteristics.

What Is Board Diversity?

Before we start to discuss why board diversity is so important and how to improve it, we need to define exactly what it is. Board diversity is a quality of a board of directors that includes a range of ethnic, religious, economic, educational, gender, age, and professional perspectives.

What board diversity isn’t

When we talk about board of directors diversity, it’s not merely a code for ethnic or racial diversity. You aren’t casting a TV commercial with a carefully market-researched mix of skin tones in perfect proportion.

If you set that kind of diversity as your goal, you may do your nonprofit a disservice. The diversity and inclusiveness you want to see includes racial diversity, but the overall picture is far more complex. It must also include a variety of economic and educational backgrounds. If you have a board of all lawyers from different ethnic backgrounds, there is still a good chance that their educational and professional experiences are similar. 

Real board of directors diversity isn’t a checklist or just a variety of one criterion. It is a careful and thorough collection of perspectives.

True nonprofit board diversity isn't a checklist or all about ethnicity, and it isn't the same thing as inclusion

What a healthy, diverse board looks like

First, a healthy board should reflect the diversity of the nonprofit itself and the population of the community that it exists in. For example, it’s quite common for board members to skew wealthy – sometimes significantly so. But of course, most nonprofits don’t exclusively serve the wealthy, nor are they all located in affluent areas.

If your nonprofit organization exists in a middle-class, working-class or impoverished neighborhood, seek to have representation from that neighborhood on the board. Without it, you miss an important representative voice.

Similarly, look to businesses that are close in physical proximity to your nonprofit and solicit those businesses’ leaders for your board. The shop owner around the corner may not be wealthy, but she can bring an understanding of the area that board members who live across town (or even out of state) just can’t match.

Board diversity is crucial for gaining more perspectives from the community and better problem solving discussions.

Why Is Board Diversity Important?

Even if we haven’t lived it, we’ve all seen it before: a board table surrounded by middle-aged white men. It’s a complete monoculture, no women, people of color, or varying levels of income or age represented. Nonprofit diversity, especially on the board, can be nonexistent.

Of course, these days you might see such a thing on television, but it’s just a caricature, right? In the real world, surely we’ve made progress?

Unfortunately, not as much as we’d like. Among Fortune 1,000 GDI companies, the percentage of board seats filled by women just crossed 20% in January 2018. Nonprofit boards fare somewhat better, but clearly, if building more inclusive and diverse nonprofit boards is our goal, there’s work to do. 

WHy it matters

When a board becomes homogeneous, it can be difficult to notice things that are outside of the board’s general life experiences. A board that is all one gender may not notice things that are apparent to another gender. There are things that people are blind to, and as they say, “you don’t know what you don’t know.”

A board that is just checking boxes isn’t valuing the benefits of boardroom diversity. The danger of checking a box is that diversity won’t be properly utilized. Instead, it will just be pursued for the sake of a label.

When checking a box, boards aren’t looking for people who have unique perspectives. Instead, they’re just looking for anyone who fits the classification of “diverse.” And ultimately, this isn’t going to lead to the board getting the best results.

Nonprofit board diversity represents the community and improves board discussions with new perspectives.

In fact, this often leads to a lack of nonprofit board diversity. A board isn’t inclusive when it doesn’t value its composition, and board members will be able to tell when they were recruited for a “diversity” label rather than being truly valued.

When these recruiting measures fail, it leads to a weaker group dynamic. Board members and staff won’t be able to see the value of the initiatives, and members brought onboard under these diversity initiatives may struggle to work within the board’s culture.

To protect against this, boards need to have the right culture and need to foster an understanding among board members regarding the importance of diversity as a whole.

Board diversity measures at a nonprofit sometimes fail because board members recruit new board members who are just like them.

Why Does Nonprofit Board Diversity Sometimes Fail?

Nonprofit board diversity and inclusion strategies often fail. Either they don’t achieve the results that were desired, or they just alienate people rather than being effective. At best, many institutions find that their diversity protocols do very little.

HERE ARE A FEW OF THE MAIN REASONS DIVERSITY STRATEGIES FAIL:

  • Not valuing differences. The entire point of diversity is that people have different perspectives, but many boards may instead want a more homogenous setup. Boards generally thrive on cooperation. They have the best intentions: people want to get along, and they want to agree. But this pushes back the actual value of inclusion.
  • Pursuing diversity over other qualifications. Board of directors diversity has to be matched with skill and acumen. Boards shouldn’t rush to arbitrarily fill their diversity slots, because this won’t yield positive results.
  • Looking for recognition. A nonprofit board diversity program has to be designed for the right reasons. If people are looking for recognition rather than truly respecting new viewpoints, it will be apparent.

We can improve nonprofit board diversity by planning carefully how to recruit.

How Can Board Diversity Be Improved?

A change toward board of directors diversity won’t happen overnight. It’s often a marathon, not a sprint. Just remember that a diversity of experience and expertise brings with it a diversity of perspectives, and that positions your nonprofit to be stronger. It will be better at risk management, and better in making decisions for the future. It also can lead you to more opportunities that you are poised to take full advantage of.

When your board is more diverse, board discussions evolve. There is a transition period in which the board has to leave the “comfort zone” of familiar conversations and trade those for broader discussions.

Once you make the transition, your board and your organization will be so much better.

Step 1: Start with a discussion about board diversity.

It’s important to understand that board nonprofit diversity and inclusiveness starts with a discussion with the board. No, a discussion won’t solve all your board’s issues in this area. It’s simply the place to start.

What do we mean? For starters, if a board has never had a conversation about what diversity and inclusiveness look like for the organization and for the board itself, it’s a safe bet that the board isn’t doing well in this area.

If your board has never had this conversation (or if it’s been too long), prompt them to do so today. Ask what it would look like to have a truly diverse and inclusive board. Ask members that are in the minority (whether that’s socioeconomic status, occupation, geography, race, or age) what they would change.

Step 2: Assess your current board diversity and set goals.

As you search for new board members, assess your current board culture. Have you created a welcoming environment for diverse backgrounds? Set goals for attracting new board members in your deficient areas, and evaluate potential candidates according to these new goals.

Consider non-traditional board members—people in the community who have demonstrated leadership. With a bit of focused training, there are likely many individuals who could make fantastic board members.

Step 3: Prepare for the diverse board member search.

Make sure your entire board has marching orders and is in agreement regarding what to look for when cultivating new prospects. When you do select a new board member, he or she will be more likely to be immediately valued. Furthermore, he or she is much more likely to engage—and stay engaged.

As you conduct your search, turn the tables. Look at your organization from the new member’s perspective. What is his or her impression likely to be? Do you demonstrate a commitment to inclusion, too? Inclusion refers to the degree to which diverse voices are listened to, consulted, and given the space to voice their perspective.

If your board achieves diversity but not inclusion, your healthy board composition will be worthless.

To improve board member diversity, discuss the need with your board, assess gaps, prepare for outreach, identify diversity candidates, and be sure to include the new voices.

Step 4: Identify your candidates.

You have had some hard conversations with your board and taken a close look at where your boardroom diversity needs to be strengthened. Everyone is on the same page and ready to reach out to some candidates. Not so fast! Nonprofit board expert Simone Joyaux recommends the following preparation.

Do not name any board candidates until you’ve done the following:

  • Articulated corporate values that incorporate diversity in all its meanings. Talk candidly as a boardand as individualsabout unearned privilege rather than disadvantages.
  • Adoptedas policythe board’s job description and board member performance expectations.
  • Created a skills inventory. Then evaluate your board members to discern the missing skills.
  • Articulated the behaviors you expect from all board members, regardless of requisite skills. Behaviors like: Mutual respect. Trust. Team player. Questioner. And so forth.
  • See samples of all this in the Free Download Library on Simone’s website.

A diverse board recruitment story

Great, but how do you reach out to the people you actually want to recruit? Again, Simone Joyaux tells a real story of a board she was on.

“If diversityin staff and boardis a critical value of your organization, you’ll take every conceivable step to make it happen. I served on a board once where the Nominating Committee (so limiting; we called it the Governance Committee) once said this to the board: ‘Please help identify candidates for board membership who have finance and accounting expertise, and fundraising expertise. But you can’t name anyone who is a white woman over 50 years of age.’

Why? Because we already had too many white women over 50 on the board. We believed deeply in diversity.

So I called a colleague whom I trusted. I asked him to name women only; women he found to be reliable, might believe in our mission, and had finance or fundraising skillsbut no white women over 50.

He named 10 women who met our criteria. I didn’t know any of them. Neither did any other board member. We reached out, using his name. I invited them to meet, learn about our organization, and possibly get involved at some point in the future, perhaps. Five out of the ten were interested in talking. And we recruited three new board members using trusted referral sourcesand recruiting beyond your own board member contacts… Do you do that?”

Here is the nonprofit board diversity guide ebook download.

Conclusion & Free Resources

Diversity is incredibly important to any nonprofit board. But board diversity can’t be a method by which boards attempt to prove a point or check a box. It’s important to recognize why organizations are eager to pursue boardroom diversity. Approaching this topic with thought and self-awareness will protect your board’s future.

For more information, download this free Diversity & Inclusion guide.

Diversity and inclusion on a nonprofit board of directors requires time and effort.

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