Nonprofit Board Diversity

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I’m heading into dangerous territory by blogging about a topic that is well covered by others, so forgive me if this isn’t new to you. The reason I’m writing about board diversity is it is STILL A PROBLEM and because a friend messaged to ask me about the topic. For this blog, I’ll be writing about nonprofit boards, not elected or corporate boards – both of which also have a lack of people of color serving on them but that is for someone else to write about.

There is a lot of research done about how many nonprofit boards are not diverse, nor representative of the communities they serve. BoardSource research shows that while boards are becoming more diverse they are still very white, in their research pool 78% of board members were white, 83% of board chairs identified as white. When asked if the board composition aligns with the population served by the nonprofit 29% of board chairs said no, and 38% chief executives replied no. This is troubling since these top two leadership positions guide our nonprofits. The report has a lot more data and helpful suggestions for remedying the problems.

We gotta look at history

To understand the problem of why we don’t have diverse boards, let’s take a very quick look at how we got here. The nonprofit sector and nonprofit industry grew out of many white institutional frameworks – missionaries, churches, service leagues. These roots came with paternalistic (white male) models of service and community building. Many of those being served by these institutions were not seen as worthy of self-determination or leadership roles.

On the flip side, many communities of color and informal networks self-organized, but did so outside of the nonprofit network/industry. These mutual aid networks figured out how to support each other, it was a matter of survival. Aunties and uncles and other informal leaders can be found helping and building their communities up. I mention this to prove there is diverse leadership; it may look different but it is there. I mention this so we recognize there is POC leadership out there.

How to Fix the Problem

Understanding the history is important to understanding how we fix the problem. Many nonprofit boards are mini-clubs. If you look at a board and start mapping out the relationships you can see how people joined the board – people know people, current board members nominate others to fill seats, we recruit from places we know like the universities we’re connected to, the businesses we frequent, etc. The problem with this closed network is when we allow it to stay closed we don’t get the diversity we need to be representative of those we serve. Acknowledging this club aspect to boards is important to fixing the problem.

Here are some suggestions for diversifying your board:

Count – Track your board demographics. Boards should keep a matrix tracking board diversity on multiple-fronts important to your mission and services. Such as tracking race and ethnicity, disability status, residency (especially for place based organizations), occupation alignment (e.g. education policy orgs would benefit from having educators on the board), gender including non-binary, LGBTQ, etc. Tracking and counting will give your board a baseline understanding of who is on your board and where there are holes. When board members join is a good time to have them self-identify how they want to be represented on the board matrix.

Practice and Policies – One of the best boards I served on had policies in place on how representatives their board needed to be. This organization received a lot of federal grant money which dictated the board composition, cumbersome, but these policies led to great results. The requirements included having 1/3 of the board from the community (e.g. residents, clients, nonprofit service partners, etc.), 1/3 elected officials or their appointees – while this sounds weird, it really worked to keep the board geographically representative of the organization’s service area, 1/3 at-large – a lot of corporate representatives and other fundraising heft were placed in this category. There were also requirements to have certain professionals on the board – an accounting expert, a lawyer, a child development expert, and someone with lived experience of homelessness. It was mind-boggling every month to figure out if the board was in compliance with the policy requirements. Having left that board and serving on other boards I now appreciate how the policy requirements kept the board grounded in the mission and services of the organization.

Your board composition policies do not have to be this prescriptive, but having some practices or policies to guide board recruitment is helpful.

Recruitment – My friend who prompted this blog post told me briefly about her experience on a board. She is the only POC on her board. The board voted on two new board members who were both white. My friend voted no to both candidates; she was out voted. She wasn’t surprised by this but it was still infuriating.

If you want to diversify your board, YOU NEED POC CANDIDATES. It is that simple. Don’t invite more white people to join the board. It isn’t hard – if you want diversity look for it, going back to the point about boards being clubs, if you want to bring on people of color. Stop asking white people for recommendations of who should join the board, or if you do ask white people be very specific that you need candidates of color.

POCs Leverage Your Power – POCs this one is for you. Leverage your board seat, your voice, and power – it won’t always be easy, but your presence makes a difference. For one board I was recruited on I knew the board was bringing me on because they needed POC diversity. I appreciated their honesty, and I was honest with them back. I told them I would join on the condition that within a year the board needed to have at least two more POC board members. I did not want to be the token POC. It worked and the board diversified.

Board diversity is important and there is a lot more written about it. Check out Vu’s blog, Rhea Wong’s Nonprofit Lowdown podcast, follow disability rights activist – guest blogger Carrie offers several in this blog post.

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I am writing from the lands of the 29 federally recognized and non-federally recognized tribes in now Washington State, including the Coast Salish people — Duwamish, Muckleshoot, Suquamish, Snoqualmie, Quinault, and Native American organizations that have treaty rights and have been here since time immemorial. I give my thanks to the elders, Native and Indigenous colleagues and relations, and the land itself. Fakequity pays “rent” to Native organizations in Washington and Hawaii; a small act to repair and work to be in more justice-based relations.