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Non-Profit Board Diversity and Inclusion – Lack of Progress Should Prompt Action

By Cynthia Woolbright

Many organizations proclaim their commitment to diversity and inclusion, yet the data tells a different story. Not-for-profits continue to reflect a dire lack of diversity on their Board of Trustees. It’s time to make diversification of our Boards an actionable priority.

I wrote a blog post on this very topic about two years ago. Today, I’d like to revisit the topic and see what we’ve learned and how are we progressing on this critical mandate.

Sadly, we’ve not seen much growth of diversity with our boards. Today, the percentages of people of color on boards (16%) has not changed much in over two decades. According to The Center for Effectiveness in Philanthropy, non-profits indicate diversity of a critical issue they are addressing, yet progress is not being made.

Why Are we not Making Progress in Diversifying Boards of Non-Profits?

Jim Taylor, Vice President of Initiatives at BoardSource, said in a blog post, “true commitment to diversity isn’t understood, nor a priority in the board’s culture.”

He recalls some of his own experiences as a black man when recruited by boards. He shared this about one that was memorable, in all the wrong ways:

“A White board member requested a meeting with me to discuss his organization and to gauge my potential interest in joining the board. When we met, he gave me more background on the organization, with a particular emphasis on the board’s desire to become more diverse. After listening to the board member’s ‘pitch,’ I asked him to share the ways he thought I could add value to the board; I wanted to know what prompted him to reach out to me, specifically.

The board member seemed surprised and unprepared to answer the question, and just re-stated his board’s focus on becoming more diverse. His visible discomfort in directly answering my question revealed the real answer to me: I was being recruited because -- and seemingly only because -- I was Black and my board membership would support the organization’s board diversity goals. The board member didn’t appear to know much about my work or my skills and experiences (or else he considered them to be far less important than my race, from the board’s perspective), so based on his response I believed that I was being ‘tokenized’ – being recruited by a board not for my capability (in combination with my race), but so that the board could use my membership to portray to the public a misleading impression of its commitment to diversity, inclusion, and equity.

The board member’s approach to recruiting me was indicative of a board that has adopted (whether due to lack of awareness or a conscious decision) a “check the box” mentality rather than a thoughtful, strategic, respectful approach to becoming more diverse. It was as though they understood that they should be diverse, but had no idea why that mattered or how it connected to a broader recruitment strategy focused on bringing in the expertise, perspectives, and reputational capital needed to lead and govern effectively.”

Taylor notes such a “check box mentality” trips a “red stop light” for him when being recruited to a board.

The Center for Effective Philanthropy reports that today, overall board composition is: 78.6% White, Blacks at 7.5%, Latino at 4.2% and Asian, 2.6%. While Board’s indicate diversity is a critical issue, they are clearly failing at making progress in making their board more inclusive and diverse.

Bottom line - boards must be serious about change and must look to their members to step up - now.

How Can Board Take Meaningful Action Toward Diversity?

It begins with the commitment of the board itself. Such is required that our board chair and board governance committee take leadership in this critical area.

It begins at the top of the organization and calls for the board to be willing to commit to a broader understanding of diversity and inclusion. What does it look like? They must be willing to increase their own levels of behavior and effectiveness on this critical issue.

Develop board member competencies in these areas is imperative and should become a regular part of member assessment and overall board effectiveness.

Benchmark against peer and aspirant institutions in these areas to better understand diversity and inclusion. As we become increasingly transparent, we can ask board members to sign not only a “conflict of interest” statement, but also to commit and sign a diversity plan to be implemented and evaluated annually.

Boards fail in not valuing differences and not pursuing the skill and acumen of potential board members who are people of color ---rather than the “check the box” style of diversity Jim Taylor cautions us about.

Boards should consider hiring a consulting organization for training on this very topic for board members, while also conducting a diversity audit or assessment that analyzes the board culture and policies. We can move beyond compositional diversity. But the commitment to a more diverse and inclusive Board of Trustees remains at the top.

What Boards Might Expect When Diversifying?

For starters communication styles will be challenged as we engage individuals from other than White backgrounds. Today’s “sameness” in style and tone will be changed. There will be challenges in the level of involvement and engagement, especially early in the process as individuals from diverse backgrounds contribute. There may well be unease and levels of uncomfortableness from traditional members as our levels of expectations, changes in the dynamics of power, and much more are expressed. There will be a transition to leave their comfort zone and trade for greater and more effective broader discussion.

Over time the board culture will change. We must, however, recognize that such change will require or actually demand strategic and focused leadership. It will require our members to become better listeners. Board training should be provided and understood as a valuable tool in this process. Finally, all members should be encouraged to participate.

We also can build strategies that will enhance our efforts to build value of diversity and inclusion in our board and its leadership regarding their governance responsibilities.

Develop a strategy and plan that includes a board discussion on diversity and inclusion, access board gaps, prepare for outreach, identify candidates whose skills and talent are recognized and include a new voice on richer and robust discussions. ( September 17, 2020, Why Nonprofit Board Diversity Matters).

Again, a commitment to effectiveness in diversity and inclusion will likely require a consulting organization to work with the board in leading these changes.

Boards will tackle the issue of trust and its relationship to racial inequality as well as understanding a focus on a “culture add, not a cultural fit” strategy. Only then will a board evolve to a far better and more effective partner with the leadership of the organization, thus resulting on serving the mission, vision and priorities.

Why Commit to Diversity and Inclusion?

With increased diversity and inclusion, we can expect our board’s ability to expand to have deeper and stronger discussions that inform members on issues and considerations in governing our institutions. We enhance our relationships and opportunities for strategic alliances with business, arts, and other areas as our organizations will be enhanced through broader participation of the board. We also gain access to potential donors, individuals, corporations and foundations that might otherwise not contribute.

To be sure, these conversations and discussions on topics of race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation may be challenging to deeply held views and perspectives. The result, however, will be a stronger depth and breadth of values and vision for our organizations. One that can be held in high esteem and one that can inspire others in our communities.

Because we recognize diversity and inclusion as important values and assets of our institutions, accepting the challenges and developing the tools to get there should be our foremost commitment.

Building the pipeline of diverse individuals, cultivating them for board membership, and recruiting them for board leadership will be the outcome that will provide the transformation of our boards and organizations that is so necessary in the broader perspective of our communities - one that keeps us relevant today and in the future.

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