Building a More Diverse Board with Intention

According to a report from Boardsource, a third of 1,300 nonprofit CEOs surveyed say that their boards are 100 percent white. They also report that 45 percent of board members are women. That means that a lot of important voices never get invited to the table of board service.

Board diversity can and should go beyond recruiting around race or ethnicity, into a true reflection of the people who are served. What skill set does your board need to have to better reflect and move forward on its mission and values? One Michigan nonprofit did an assessment of what skill sets and types of people it needed when it found itself with several open seats at the table. They knew they wanted ethnic diversity based on the people they serve, but they also needed someone who really understood community-based economic development. And through getting the word out to their various networks, they brought on an African-American woman who works in banking and lives in one of the communities they serve. She brings a new and fresh perspective to looking at the programs they take on and new ideas about how to prime them for success.

This is a great example of how diversity can be an asset on many levels to the organization and the board.

Where to find diverse members

When you ask nonprofit CEOs and board presidents why building diversity moves so slowly, it is the same reason many give for not diversifying their staffs and even their executive teams. They say they can't find diversity.

But they just aren't looking in the right places and not networking consistently. One challenge is that it is human nature to go to our existing networks to find new talent. To achieve diversity, it often means reaching out to other networks. If you want to find someone who is from the LGBTQ community to serve on the board, reach out to organizations who already serve that demographic.

Don't be afraid to ask the questions, but also be sure to explain why. Organizations that serve diverse groups don't want to be a resource for tokenism, so take time to explain how adding new perspectives will help your organization's mission. Not only will it target your recruitment, but it also could lead to new relationships that benefit your nonprofit when it comes time for grants and outreach.

Diversity versus equity

The issue of creating board diversity versus infusing equity in your nonprofit's work is an interesting one. A board president who felt uncomfortable with shaking up his board's dynamic told me that adding new members might not do what organizations want, which is to find new ways of creating equity for their clients.

"Board development should not be a numbers game, but a way to increase the conversation and policies around equity," he said. His board is all white, all over 50, mostly male and has remained unchanged for a decade. Although they had recently diversified staff, hiring their first Latina executive director, the board leadership was still reluctant to alter their board composition. However, when boards hang on to their status quo, they make real changes within the organization more difficult. Diversity across all levels of leadership means a better chance at building equity.

Don't just go for quotas or slots

Building stronger and more diverse boards is not about boosting quotas. Nonprofits often ask me to help them find a specific type of person to fill an open slot on the board, and those asks can be too generic. Can you help me find a black male under 40, they might ask, or a physician who works in urban areas.But instead of a quota, they should instead search for individuals with a deep passion for their mission.

This is key. Recruiting people who believe that your organization's work makes a difference, and who want to help with that work, is a win-win. So a search should always begin with people who value what you do. Look to volunteers or donors, those who attend events or who support other organizations with similar values. Recently, a nonprofit that champions urban gardens approached me to serve on their board. I declined, but because I shared their values, I found a passionate young person who is committed to urban farms and gardens through a fellows network.

The takeaway: Those who believe in what you do will help you in more ways that board service alone.

Help 4 Nonprofits offers several tips for the kinds of questions and conversations you want to have with potential board members.

What are the sweet spots in diversity?

When searching for how new members fit in, look long and hard at your strategic plan. Where did you say you wanted to take your nonprofit when you developed your plan? Does the board reflect the skill set you need to get there? As you work to diversify, also look at the talents you need. If you desire a board member who is a rainmaker around networks, partnerships, and funding, cast a wide net for that. The National Council of Nonprofits offers a strong self-assessment document that can help you figure out what your board wants and needs.

And when considering diversity, remember to include those with disabilities, different ages, ethnicities and sexual orientations.

What's in it for them?

Finally, remember that service also needs to give back. Making sure your board stays diverse (and engaged) requires investment in those you recruit. Board members won't stay if they don't feel they are also gaining from the effort. There are a lot of reasons that bring individuals to specific boards. Be prepared to explain what they can get from being involved. Address the ability to inform policy, serve a targeted clientele, learn strategic leadership skills, network with other leaders. Also discuss the types of board development your organization offers them, especially individuals who are new to the board leadership table.

By making sure you value your members for all that they bring to the table, you'll assure your organization is able to grow and succeed through diversity.

Andrea King Collier is a strategic communications consultant to nonprofit organizations and foundations. Collier works nationally but is based in Lansing, Michigan.

Comments (1)

  • Excellent advice, Andrea. Developing a diverse, inclusive and equity focused board is a critical componen for non-profit success.

    May 29, 2017

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