So We’re “On Board” with Diversity… Now What?


In our work in board placement, we hear almost every day about how desperately nonprofits need to diversify their boards. Whether it be more women, greater geographic diversity, diversity of industry, etc., the need is great. Sometimes this is because the board looked around and thought… “hmm, we all look the same,” other times because a client complained that nobody on the board knew what it was like to live in their shoes, and still sometimes because a funder or law required it.  Just last summer, New York City’s Mayor Bill de Blasio announced as part of his “cultural plan” a plan to tie funding for museums and art groups to diversity among employees and board members. “Diversity” has become one of the biggest buzzwords of the industry.

Bringing on new board members and diversifying the experience around the board table is important. But how many nonprofit boards are truly making it their purpose to know and respect the identities and experiences of their board members? And, are they doing it in a way that transforms how the board approaches governance, solves problems and advocates for the mission of the organization?

This is the hard part. It is always great, necessary even, to bring new talent onto the board; the difficulty is in figuring out how to integrate it. What do you do if your board has never had a particular demographic represented before? How do you engage diverse board members in a respectful way? How do you value their opinion without making them feel like a poster child? And how do you not assume they have all the answers just because they identify with the demographic you serve?

For every nonprofit board thinking about, enacting or maintaining a diversity initiative, keep these six points in mind:

1. Diversity initiatives don’t start with the election of new board members.

They start with a commitment by the current board

“Diversity” sounds great to most people.
“Representation” sounds even better.

When either of these concepts are applied, however, they usually introduce an uncomfortable level of change. Some nonprofit boards have been doing business in a particular way since the organization was founded 10, 15, even 50 years ago. Bringing in new people means change, and it can take time for current board members to wrap their heads around it.

Additionally, truly making the board an inclusive space means constantly checking personal behavior, assumptions and privilege.  This is an ongoing activity that can be difficult and draining before it becomes inspiring and uplifting. In order to truly embrace the diversity of new board members, current board members have to make the commitment to the work they’ll be doing in themselves.

Finally, the commitment made by current board members to embrace diversity should shift the culture of the board to one of inclusion. Here are some things to think about:

  • How does the board environment become one in which people of different backgrounds and experiences feel welcome to contribute?
  • Who needs to take a step back to make room for others?

A board that is already working on diversity and inclusion will be much better placed to receive diverse board members in a respectful way.

2. Diversity looks different for every organization

But boards shouldn’t get too comfortable with that

In 2016 we surveyed a selection of nonprofit organizations in New York City to ask, “In what ways does your organization wish to deepen board diversity?”

Here’s a snapshot of some of the results:

  • Increasing the number of women of color on the board
  • Introducing more people of an LGBTQ background
  • Bringing in different professions
  • Welcoming men to a board full of women

The mission of a nonprofit can tend to attract a specific demographic and boards can really struggle to break away from that and still find potential board members with whom the mission resonates.

The key is to keep in mind the variety of voices your board needs to hear, but not let that limit who your board recruits.

Maybe your board has a number of men, and is looking to increase the number of women represented. Recruiting women is important. But consider not excluding other men of color, or thinking that one woman will be enough to represent most women.

In the case of BoardLeader Gaurav Doshi, he was able to bring a level of professional diversity to the Chicago board of Citizen Schools. It was when he began working with the organization that he also realized the value of his network, heading an after-school apprenticeship program for middle school students, and drawing on his professional network for instructors in how to write and design a mobile application.

True diversity of thought and experience can come from unexpected places. If your board remains open to the type of member it recruits, it is more likely to benefit from the richness of identities it brings on.

3. Diversity includes the current nonprofit board

Keep them engaged

A nonprofit board that has decided to work on diversity may find itself electing nonprofit board members who look different or have had different experiences from many of the current board members. This is great, but when all attention shifts to what the newest diverse board members can offer, it defeats the purpose of the diversity initiative in the first place and can be destructive to morale.

All board members add to the diversity of the board, and offer unique and important perspectives. To ignore any in favor of others is to limit the possibilities a board has to consider.

A board that embraces diversity looks for ways for every member to contribute.

4. Be open with your newest nonprofit board members

Tell them what your board hopes they’ll be able to bring to the organization

It will likely become obvious at the first board meeting why a 30-year-old professional was recruited to a nonprofit board of largely retired individuals. But if that new member was not previously told why the nonprofit board was interested in bringing her on, the first meeting will not go as anyone expects. Being open with a potential nonprofit board candidate about the ways the board is looking to diversify is pivotal to a smooth transition of that new board member.

For example, the board could share that they would like to bring younger talent onto the board because they believe they are more closely connected to their clients, or are interested in hearing how someone who grew up in a different culture might approach the work the organization does.

It is also essential not to make assumptions about these new members. For example, that this younger member will be interested in assisting with social media or feels comfortable engaging directly with younger staff at the organization. A better approach would be for the board to share the ways they are hoping to grow with respect to diversity, and then listen to what the candidate believes they can bring, what they want to gain from board service, and the type of experiences they have that they believe will contribute to good governance.

BoardLeader Cynthia Villamizar attributes the positive introduction she had to her organization, Friends of WHEELS, to their openness about what they were looking for in a new nonprofit board member. Cynthia says she felt valued for the experiences her personal background afforded her as a Latina woman, but also her professionalism, perspectives from not being a native New Yorker, and personal skill set. But it was her ability to speak with the board about what she felt she was able to contribute and how that aligned with their needs that made her feel truly welcome.

Due to this, she has only positive things to say about her nonprofit board experience.

Having an open conversation will make for better integration of board members when the time comes.

5. Diversity and inclusion still applies to nonprofit boards serving an organization that represents a particular demographic

Maintaining an inclusive environment takes work – for everyone

Let’s say your organization’s mission is to help LGBTQ girls of color tell their stories. Your board has a rich mix of women, people of color, and gender non-conforming individuals of various professional backgrounds, sexual orientations, nationalities, abilities and in different stages of life. You’ve checked nearly all of the diversity boxes.

Alert: Your organization still has diversity and inclusion work to do.

An organization never reaches a pinnacle of diversity. True appreciation for diversity means constantly evaluating a space for its level of inclusion for everyone who occupies it. Each individual is different and changing, and therefore inclusion means making accommodations for that.

BoardLeader Kareem Mohamednur adds racial diversity to the board of Teatro Vista, an organization “firmly committed to sharing and celebrating the riches of Latinx culture with Chicago audiences.” He suggests finding a way to make an impact early on, and not being afraid to contribute ideas or challenge the status quo, because every board member has a position to fill and a part to play.

6. Extend the diversity initiative of the board to the organization as a whole

Let it direct the work of the board

Engaging in diversity work may seem like an added task of the board. In reality, it is one of the board’s most important responsibilities. Embracing diversity is much less about checking boxes of representation, and more about seeking answers and humbling oneself to learn. The board governs an organization, directing it in its strategy and ensuring fulfillment of its mission. If a board does not seek answers, learn, or open itself to different possibilities, it limits what the organization it serves can really do.  That’s why the diversity initiative of the board must extend itself to the organization as a whole. The board should lead the organization in embracing these values to more effectively deliver its services and have the impact it would like.

Everything that applies at the board level regarding diversity also applies to the organization as a whole.

Cause Strategy Partners trains the professionals we match with nonprofit organizations (our BoardLeaders) to make an impact on their board. Through our Learning Sessions we give them the tools they need to drive impact on their board and in their organization.

So, how do you start embracing diversity and inclusion as a nonprofit board? Start with a conversation, and see where the diversity of perspectives, experiences and ideas takes you.

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