Last month Brian Flores made headlines when he sued the NFL for racial discrimination. The suit raised a conversation about the Rooney Rule – a policy that requires teams to interview diverse candidates for senior positions with a goal to create opportunities for individuals from historically underrepresented groups to attain top jobs in the league. The rule has rightly been placed under scrutiny. National Urban League President and CEO Marc H. Morial recognizes, “however well-intentioned, the effect of the Rooney Rule has been for team decision-makers to regard interviews with candidates of color as an extraneous step, rather than an integral part of the hiring process.”
The Rooney Rule effect is not unique to private-sector hiring. It shows up in the nonprofit sector too.
You can probably guess where we are headed: nonprofit organizations can sometimes take a similar approach to building their boards. As acknowledged in the first blog of this series, we know that nonprofit boards are not resistant to including people of color. In fact, most boards actively seek people of color in their board recruitment and development efforts. But in their pursuit of racial diversity, some boards take an “any person of color will do” approach to grow their board.
Nonprofit leaders are not likely to admit this explicitly. It’s more likely masked and heard in the form of, “It’s hard to find people of color who are interested in board service,” or “Our fundraising expectation is our biggest challenge to finding diverse board candidates.” There are real, felt consequences to these observed remarks. When a person of color is elected to one of these boards, the board can misjudge their presence and purpose, either believing they have found ‘the unique and only’ person – also known as the unicorn effect – or believe that the board compromised on expectations and prioritized identity over fit. Both are harmful to that person of color.
Nonprofit board leaders may already be cognizant of harmful practices, and wish to mitigate the negative outcomes and strengthen the board overall. There is another possibility – that boards are at the start of developing equitable recruitment practices but are not sure where to start. This awareness is the right place.
Part of the problem is that when we regard diversity, we too simply think and see in black and white. A first step is recognizing that just because your organization may serve Black and Brown students – your constituents – doesn’t mean any Black or Brown professional considered for a board seat will accurately reflect constituent needs. Harm is caused when leaders want to reflect community without considering the nuances of identity held by new board members.
A more direct example: the board of an organization that serves women, looking to create new programs to support women of color, but looks around and realizes their board is composed of all white women. So, they seek to racially diversity the board. They offer a board seat to the first strong woman of color candidate they interview, without articulating what they see that board member member contributing beyond their background. The candidate wonders, “could any woman of color be sitting here? Or was there something specific to me that stood out?”
Respecting nuanced identities, and giving individuals the opportunity to share how they see themselves connecting with your mission.
Imagine if this example had been approached differently. What if that same board adjusted their starting point, and first considered where there were gaps in their knowledge and expertise, and where a new board member could really add value. What if the board developed a process that accounted for thoughtful time to understand each candidate’s motivations and potential contributions. Then, when a final decision was made, the candidate would be able to answer the questions, “Was there something about me that stood out?”
It is not enough to know that people hold nuanced identities. It’s a matter of respectful inquiry and understanding, in a way that simultaneously upholds someone’s lived experiences and qualifications. This should be built into a board’s development process. Consider using some of the below interview questions when vetting and engaging with board candidates – questions that invite them to share more about their interests and connection to the work of the organization.
- Tell me more about yourself. What drives and motivates you?
- Tell me more about how you see yourself: how would you describe your identity, and what shapes that?
- What makes you you? What about yourself do you take pride in?
- Why this is cause area and mission over others? What draws you to this organization and work?
- What do you value in life? How do you spend your time?
- What are you looking to get in return from this opportunity? What support do you need, especially from leadership?
How do we build processes that uphold organizational values and center the right motivations for diversification? Step one is understanding and respecting nuanced identities. To be left here with focus for now. There is a step two, which is where we will continue the conversation.
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 nonprofit partnership development and relationship management to amplify and strengthen the scope and impact of our services.