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Assessing your Board’s DEI Gaps & Opportunities

Nonprofit Board Development Series: Part 2
byErin M. Connell, Whitley RichardsonOctober 5, 2022

An honest and thorough self-assessment of your board is the first step in centering diversity, equity, and inclusion within the nonprofit boardroom. This resource focuses on how understanding identity can lay the groundwork for appropriately responding to your board’s composition gaps, thereby better serving your community.

What is Identity?

Identity is a complex concept that includes the experiences, cultures, perspectives, skills, and backgrounds of an individual. Identity is defined as “the collective aspect of the set of characteristics by which a person is definitively recognized or known; the set of behavioral or personal characteristics by which an individual is recognizable as a member of a group.” (Source: “Social Justice Standards | Unpacking Identity.” Teaching Tolerance.)

  • Personal identity speaks to how we self-identify ourselves, often with a group that has shared characteristics.
  • Social identity speaks to how others see and perceive us, and what they assume about us.

Some of these characteristics or traits include characteristics such as class, race, language, gender, religion, and age. Age, in particular, is a characteristic that reminds us that our identities are not stagnant; they can change and evolve over time.

When it comes to Boards of Directors, members bring their unique skills, experiences, insights, and networks to advance the mission and vision of the organization. Additionally, board members bring other aspects of their identities – including their distinctive characteristics, backgrounds, and perspectives. The interaction of these personal and social identities inform the culture of interactions in the boardroom. Because of this, being aware of identity in the boardroom is essential for effective board development and engagement.

Bringing Identity Into the Boardroom

When thinking about identity within the boardroom, and as a part of board development, consider the following framework. The goal of this four-step framework is to contextualize identity, especially with respect to mission, board culture, and board development activities.

Engaging Identity in the Boardroom

Encourage board members to reflect on their own identities and how those identities are more or less keenly felt in different social contexts.

Illuminate how privilege operates to create advantages for some identities over others. Being cognizant of privilege and how it intersects with identity is critical to considering power and engagement in your boardroom.

Celebrate shared identities as well as the diversity of identities in your boardroom, which will create community and encourage empathy.

Understand how people operate in spheres of privilege without realizing they are a part of a privileged group. Unearned privileges are benefits that someone receives simply by being born into a specific group. Equally, some people are born into unearned disadvantage that has been thrust upon them. Typically, individuals do not fit neatly into the categories of earned and unearned privilege.

Understanding an Organization’s Community

With this foundation of understanding identity, particularly in the context of nonprofit boards, we can next consider the community served by the board, and how well that community is represented in the nonprofit’s leadership.

We see that board members are often asked to contribute through a financial contribution, through professional skills and networks, and through lending their perspective and experience to the board. Often, however, this last opportunity to support board service through one’s perspective is where nonprofits struggle to recruit candidates. Many nonprofit boardrooms lack representation by community members — those whose identities and life experiences are directly related to the nonprofit’s mission, and are the most directly impacted by the organization’s work. These are the individuals whose identities and experiences are often not represented on nonprofit boards, but whose identities and experiences are at the center of programs and services provided by the nonprofit sector.

Of course, these lines are not always clear; individuals and the assets they bring to board service typically do not fall in just one of these groups. However, it can be challenging to figure out how to incorporate the perspectives, advice, and input from those who do fit squarely in the center into the board’s work. In order to connect with the life experiences and needs of the key identities central to a nonprofit’s mission and vision, nonprofits must understand their communities.

Identifying your Composition Gaps

With the understanding of the communities and identities most impacted by a nonprofit’s work, an organization should next consider gaps in board composition. Thinking broadly about the vast array of identities, lived experiences, and perspectives of those your organization serves is critical to understanding the voices needed in your boardroom.

This understanding should permeate every aspect of your board’s assessment process, including your board matrix. A board matrix is a tool, often a chart or spreadsheet, that helps boards understand the talent, skills, and perspectives that are currently on their board, as well as understand the gaps that exist around board composition. Adding a DEI lens to your board matrix is a key step to improving the diversity makeup of your board, and can improve mission impact and the effectiveness of your team. By aligning around the priorities of your board and your diversity gaps, you can recruit individuals who bring a range of identities, perspectives, and experiences to your organization and ultimately strengthen your programs, outcomes, and work. When conducting a gap analysis of the board, a nonprofit should consider what skills, perspectives, and identities are represented overall. We encourage nonprofits to be expansive when considering the perspective and identity gaps.

  1. First, consider all the traits that could comprise the complex identities of your organization’s constituents.
  2. Next, with these identities in mind, consider the gaps on your board. For example, consider racial compositions, immigration backgrounds, and the educational experiences of your primary community members.
  3. Finally, ensure that your board matrix tracks the identities specific to your community, in order to appropriately assess your board’s composition needs and identity gaps.

Identifying your Culture Gaps

Board culture has a significant influence on the way that a board carries out its work and achieves its goals. Regular evaluation of culture is another way to ensure your organization is practicing the values of DEI. Building a team culture that supports the diverse perspectives of your community and your board should be a conscious, continual effort.

To reflect on your own board’s culture, consider five key assessment markers of team and organizational culture: communication, productivity, collaboration, ownership, and decision making. (Source: BoardSource, “Culture and Dynamics.”) The assessment of board culture is vital to centering DEI in board service and governance. Maintaining a thoughtful eye towards your organization’s composition gaps will go farther if your board similarly considers and cultivates the board culture to better support those individuals you are looking to recruit. The following questions are designed to generate thoughtful conversation that addresses the health of the above internal dimensions within your own organization:

  • Who does most of the talking during board meetings? Who rarely speaks up?
  • Who is invited to serve in leadership roles on the board? Is an inclusive process employed to identify those willing to serve?
  • Does the Board Chair actively create space for all board members to participate robustly in the board conversation?
  • Do board members interact with one another before and after meetings? Are social gatherings included on the board calendar?
  • Does your board have conversations about diversity, equity, and inclusion?

It is important to practice open-mindedness and thoughtfulness when understanding the identities of board members. This includes understanding the complex layers that comprise each of our identities, as well as checking our own biases when we engage and collaborate. This intentional practice is critical for nonprofit leaders, as the impact of decisions in nonprofit boardrooms are far-reaching and transformative for communities and individuals who benefit greatly from the practices of diversity, equity, and inclusion.