What does it mean to have a board that reflects the community we serve?

Who is NOT in your boardroom?

That’s the basic question we ask thousands of nonprofit leaders each year as we invite them to consider our board placement programs.  And most organizations have a sense of their unique and pressing needs.  “We could benefit from adding a board member with a background in HR.” “Our treasurer is rolling off the board and we are now in desperate need of someone with finance expertise.” “We’re looking to bring a parent onto the board.”  

But over the past two years, the single most common response among the nonprofits we speak to is:

“We want to have a board that better reflects the community we serve.” 

When pressed for more clarity, this typically boils down to wanting more racial and ethnic diversity on the board.

And there is a huge need. BoardSource found in their most recent Leading with Intent report that just 22% of nonprofit board members identify as people of color. And Nonprofit Executives give their boards a grade of C, on average, when it comes to building a diverse and inclusive board with a commitment to equity, according to the same report. So it makes sense that recruiting candidates of color would be among a board’s top priorities. 

But, the theoretical benefits of targeting candidates of color: bringing new ideas and perspectives into the boardroom, building trust, and further supporting the community, aren’t always realized, and in practice efforts to diversify can actually have harmful effects on both the candidates the board recruits and the board itself. Take, for example, a candidate who is recruited for their skillset and racial identity but who does not identify with the the experiences of the population served. Will they be able to meet the board’s expectations? Are the community’s interests necessarily being better represented on the board solely because of this candidate’s identity? Board development processes lacking in thoughtfulness and intentionality can lead to tokenization and a false sense of progress.

The intention is pure. The impact, a little less so. Yes, having a racially diverse board can be helpful in accomplishing the mission, but race in and of itself does not produce connection or facilitate conversation or guarantee outcomes. And that is what we are most interested in understanding – how the board in its culture, composition, and communication can hold itself accountable to the work and to the community it serves.

The intention is pure. The impact, a little less so.

Demographic Summary of Nonprofit Board Members

Source: BoardSource, Leading with Intent 2021 Report

Building action-oriented solutions.

This blog series is designed to deliver action-oriented solutions to the challenges that nonprofits face in developing boards that are not just diverse, but also equitable and inclusive.  Over the coming months we will share learnings about nonprofit board development as discovered through our work to recruit, place, and support professionals for board service opportunities.  Our topics of discussion are collected from research that has informed how we develop our programs, and from the hundreds of conversations we have had with  nonprofit organizations – a sharing of the practices that work, and the ones that don’t.  

It is our hope that you join us here as we continue to discover what authentic and equitable leadership looks like on nonprofit boards.

About the Blog Series

This blog explores topics related to Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and nonprofit board development based on the experiences of Cause Strategy Partners’ board placement program staff. Through case studies, data, and stories from the field, Whitley Richards and Erika Flores share their learnings on what it means to have a board that is truly diverse, inclusive, and equitable.


Whitley Richards, Chief Program Officer, Cause Strategy Partners

Whitley Richards oversees all existing nonprofit board placement and training services globally and leads the development of new programs. She has designed, built, and led internal and consulting initiatives focused on strengthening diversity, equity, and inclusion in nonprofit governance and among nonprofit staff teams.

Erika Flores, Senior Program Associate, Cause Strategy Partners

Erika Flores supports BoardLead and Concierge Board Placement programs by connecting professionals with nonprofit organizations across the country for board service opportunities.  She plays an active role strategic partnership development and relationship management to amplify and strengthen the scope and impact of our services.