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Is Your Board Ready to Work on Diversity?

Several months ago, I met with the governance committee of an all-white board that was considering me as a potential facilitator for their annual board retreat.

One of their goals was to develop a plan to increase board diversity. I told them that I didn’t have a lot of experience helping individual boards in that way, but if they were willing to do the work, I would facilitate on a pro-bono basis and we could learn together.

After I’d used the phrase “the work” two or three times, the board chair turned to me and asked, “What is this ‘work’ you keep talking about?”

I was stumped. Having been involved in a variety of ways with a half dozen organizations as they deepened their commitment to equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI), I often use the phrase “the work” with friends and colleagues who have had similar experiences.

But the chair’s question was a good reminder that only a small fraction of nonprofits and foundations have done EDI work. As I explained what I meant, I could see that he wasn’t sold.

In my view, the board retreat would have been the beginning of a board education process and an organizational change effort that might take months or even years to play out, and would require ongoing attention.

That’s not what this board was looking for. They wanted a quick conversation—half a day at most, preferably shorter—and an action plan. They believed they understood the problem, which they defined as not being able to find people of color to serve on the board. And as the conversation unfolded, I discovered that they already had a strategy in mind—one that I felt was dubious.

We parted ways and I wished them well. And while I won’t be facilitating their retreat, I’m grateful for the conversation because it helped clarify my own thinking about the work that boards need to do before they can make more than superficial progress on diversity.

As I pointed out in the January 2018 Chronicle of Philanthropy, despite strong evidence that diverse groups make better decisions and decades of lip service paid to the importance of board diversity, we’ve made almost no change. Meanwhile, the U.S. population is more diverse than ever.

Readers of my op-ed, and participants in two workshop sessions I facilitated in 2018 on the same topic, consistently ask the same follow-up question: So, what do we do?

I certainly don’t claim to have a definitive answer. But a handful of conversations—including several like the one I just described—have convinced me of the need to be clearer about how boards can shift from talk to action.

To get started, boards need to recognize that lack of diversity is a presenting symptom of a much larger problem—the many systems, structures, and policies that have been intentionally designed to benefit white people, disadvantage other groups, and perpetuate discrimination and inequality throughout the entire history of the United States, from Jamestown until now.

Some of the most egregious examples, such as slavery, Jim Crow laws, or government-sanctioned discrimination in mortgage lending, have been eliminated or at least mitigated. But many others persist, often unseen or unacknowledged by white people. That’s why I think boards that are serious about diversity need to understand that context—why boards are not diverse in the first place and how people of color are experiencing these systems, structures, and policies—before they can move toward meaningful diversity.

Boards also need a common framework and vocabulary to talk about diversity. For example, board members need to understand the separate but related concepts of equity, diversity, and inclusion, along with the meaning of terms such as white privilege, unconscious bias, and structural and institutional racism.

Understanding the context for racism in America and learning a bunch of new terms and concepts won’t be easy or simple. Doing so involves examining facts and ideas that may challenge board members’ pre-conceptions or provoke strong emotional reactions. Having meaningful and productive conversations requires trust, empathy, patience, and skilled facilitation. And board members may need time between conversations to reflect and absorb what they’re learning.

In short, this is not the work of a single meeting or even a half-day retreat, and it’s unlikely to lead to an immediate plan for changing board composition.

But when sustained over time, this work can help board members begin to see the world through a different lens, and recognize the faulty narratives and biases, both implicit and explicit, that influence who gets asked to serve on boards and how board members are recruited. This work may also cause board members to reconsider their own biases and blind spots, how they define power and influence, whose voices and perspectives should be around the board table, and what barriers may be preventing candidates of color from joining the board.

Unfortunately, too few organizations have the resources to hire the many skilled professionals who design organizational development processes that address equity, diversity, and inclusion, and we need solutions for that. Foundations—especially the growing number that have committed to advancing equity—need to provide funding for this work. And I know that BoardSource and others are in the early stages of exploring how to work with cohorts of leaders and organizations, both to reduce the cost per organization and to build supportive peer networks.

Maybe—and I emphasize maybe—a skilled and committed volunteer could help a board begin this journey. Or perhaps a group of board members could organize a series of initial conversations that draw on the many books, videos, and and other resources that can advance learning and dialogue about EDI. (I plan to talk more about those resources in a future post.)

One way or another, we have to do this work. Because what we’ve been doing so far hasn’t produced nearly enough change.

I have no doubt that a very determined board can become more diverse without comprehensive EDI training. But diversity isn’t even the real issue, and without a deep grounding in the history of racism and oppression and an understanding of key EDI concepts, the diversity is likely to be superficial, people of color will feel tokenized, and nothing will really have changed.

Real change will take work. Is your board ready to do the work?

Rick Moyers is an independent consultant to philanthropy and nonprofit organizations. Previously, he was vice president for programs at the Meyer Foundation in Washington, D.C., executive director of the Ohio Association of Nonprofit Organizations, and vice president for programs at BoardSource. Rick currently serves on the boards of BoardSource and the Community Foundation for the Central Blue Ridge.

©2017 by Rick Moyers