Nonprofit Board Development Series: Part 1

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the Nonprofit Boardroom

Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) play important roles in the nonprofit boardroom.  In this resource, we explore these topics, their importance, and how they apply to nonprofit boards.

What is Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion?

Let’s begin by reviewing basic definitions of diversity, equity, and inclusion.  

  • Diversity refers to the wide range of personal characteristics and backgrounds of individuals co-existing in society.  The term is often used to include aspects of race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, and class.  Diversity also includes aspects of language, marital status, where people live or grew up, age, ability, their belief system, and more.  Diversity speaks to the questions: Who is present?  Whose experiences do we have around the table?
  • Inclusion is an intentional effort to transform the status quo by creating opportunity for those who have been historically marginalized.  Inclusion speaks to the questions: Who is participating?  Is everyone genuinely welcomed and able to participate in the conversation? 
  • Equity is the practice of treating people fairly, especially by considering factors that benefit and harm different groups and using this understanding to inform more fair treatment.  Equity speaks to the questions: Does everyone have a fair chance?  Even if an opportunity is available, is it accessible to everyone?  How is power operating in the situation? (Source: Institute for Democratic Renewal and Project Change Anti-Racism Initiative. A Community Builder’s Tool Kit.)

The Importance of DEI

The benefits of centering diversity, equity, and inclusion are well documented, indicating that diversity drives innovation and that diverse companies are more successful across a range of indicators.  The same is true for nonprofits.  When board members, employees, and other stakeholders who shape the values and activities of a nonprofit come from a wide array of backgrounds, they each bring unique perspectives that influence how best to advance the nonprofit’s mission and solve problems in more inclusive and innovative ways.  The value of diversity is that the wider variety of backgrounds that are represented and engaged at the table, the more diverse the perspectives a board has on the work it is doing.  In turn, the board’s work and product will be more dynamic, more informed, and ultimately more effective.  Furthermore, the value of diversity is lost if those different perspectives and experiences are not actively engaged through inclusivity and establishing equity. (Source: Leading with Intent: 2017 National Index of Nonprofit Board Practices, BoardSource.)

The State of DEI in the Nonprofit Sector

To understand what leadership in the nonprofit sector looks like, it is critical to understand how different identities and lived experiences are – or are not – reflected in the nonprofits we serve.

Identity

Percentage of US population

Percentage of Nonprofit Staff

Percentage of Leadership

Percentage of Board

Gender

51% identify as female

73%

45%

48%

Race

40% identify as people of color

18%

10%

<24%

Age

27% are between 25-44

Not Available

11%

17%

While these statistics represent only a few aspects of diversity in nonprofits, overall, we see a major equity and inclusion gap when it comes to who is in our communities and who serves on our staff teams, versus who serves in leadership roles in the nonprofit sector.

 

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion & Nonprofit Governance

There is a power dynamic inherent in nonprofit board service which is born of the fact that those who serve in the boardroom are making decisions that affect the lives of a group of people of which they, often, are not a part.  The risk is that because of this disconnect, the board could make decisions with ineffective results, or worse, have a harmful net impact. 

A commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion creates an environment in which the board is responsive to the realities of the people and community it serves, while also including the community in the decision-making processes.  This is a personal and group commitment, an internal and external commitment, and is practiced at both the board level and within the organization.

Practicing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the Boardroom

In practice, committing to diversity, equity, and inclusion on the board means:

    • Knowing the clients you serve 
    • Knowing the community you serve
    • Knowing the organization you serve

Reflect on what each of the above commitments means for your board.  With this in mind, bringing a DEI lens to your board can be broken down into three key phases: 

    1. Assess:  In order to make change, it is vital that your board first recognizes where it stands with respect to diversity, equity, and inclusion in your boardroom. 
    2. Recruit:  Next, with a clearer understanding of where you are and where you aim to be, your board can engage thoughtfully in an equitable recruitment process that works to advance your community needs and your commitment to DEI.
    3. Retain:  Finally, having recruited with a DEI lens and ensuring that your board reflects your constituents, work to ensure that the board culture is itself inclusive and supportive of all identities.

The integration of diversity, equity, and inclusion with board leadership can look like many different practices across these phases of assessment, recruitment, and retention – and beyond.  Below are a few examples of what practicing DEI can look like for your board: 

    • Engaging the board in training and conversations around the value of practicing diversity, equity, and inclusion.
    • Reconsidering board recruitment strategies and processes, such as by proactively tapping into new networks to recruit individuals outside of your immediate circles.
    • Regularly engaging as a board in a gap analysis to assess your gaps around diversity, equity, and inclusion, and to make a plan for how to do your work differently as a board and organization.
  •  

Centering the values of diversity, equity, and inclusion leads to more effective work environments overall, including in the nonprofit boardroom.  Ultimately, the goal is to bring these values into practice, using diversity, equity, and inclusion to create an environment in which the board is responsive to the realities of the people and community it serves, while also including the community perspective in the decision-making processes.