Consistent survey data over many years have highlighted the persistent lack of diversity on the boards of both nonprofits and foundations in the United States — a constant that has barely changed in more than 20 years. And perhaps in reaction to that, a significant number of nonprofit and foundation chief executives say they are dissatisfied with the current composition of their board and would like to do better.
Because of my long association with BoardSource, both as a former staff member and co-author of early research on board composition and, since 2012, as a member of the board of directors, I often get approached by executives and board members who say they are ready to work on diversity, and want to know how to get started.
My answer, grounded in experience as a board member and foundation executive, is that boards that are serious about diversity need to prepare themselves for a conversation and a self-examination that is much broader than brainstorming about how to get more people of color, people with differing abilities, or broader age representation onto the board.
Diversity is only one aspect of a much larger conversation about equity and power, and lack of diversity is just a presenting symptom — the part of the iceberg that shows above water, signaling much deeper systemic and structural issues that need to be understood and addressed before organizations can tackle board diversity in a meaningful and authentic way.
A growing number of boards and executives seem willing to have those conversations. But many boards still aren’t ready, and attempting to force the issue — because staff recognize the need, or as a response to external pressures and criticisms — may do more harm than good, sparking confusion, division, or relapse into inertia.
How can board members and executives know if their board is ready for deeper work in pursuit of equity? Here are four signs:
1. Multiple champions. Ideally, at least a few board members should understand this work, believe it’s important for the board to engage, and be willing to help bring their peers along. One champion won’t be enough — board sentiment can shift depending on who shows up for the meeting, and it’s unfair to ask a single board member to bear a disproportionate share of responsibility to move these conversations forward, particularly if that board member is also a person of color.
2. Openness to learning. Board members may be at very different places in their own understanding and personal journeys around equity and structural and institutional racism. Those who are open to learning can find enormous benefit in processing information with a group they know and trust. But a few board members who are resistant to learning, or don’t believe conversations about equity are relevant to mission, can easily derail a process and prevent progress.
3. Willingness to commit significant time. Board members are volunteers with busy lives, and some may come from professional settings in which they are accustomed to faster timelines and more focused decision-making processes. Reluctance or unrealistic expectations about the time involved should be a warning signal.
4. Alignment with broader organizational goals. Boards operate within a larger organizational context, and a board’s work on equity, diversity, and inclusion should not be undertaken in isolation from the organization’s larger direction and goals. A board commitment to equity will be of limited value if that commitment doesn’t flow through to an organization’s broader culture and day-to-day work. Similarly, efforts by staff to move an equity agenda can only go so far if an organization’s governing body is unwilling to approve policy decisions that support that commitment.
For boards that aren’t ready, here are some suggestions for executives, board chairs, and governance committee chairs:
Have strategic, one-on-one conversations with board members to lay the groundwork for future boardroom conversations.
Look for opportunities to bring equity champions into key leadership roles, including chair or vice chair, member of the governance committee, or governance committee chair.
Encourage board members to attend conferences, workshops, or events sponsored by other organizations that are further along.
Recruit incoming board members with a demonstrated personal commitment to equity. Be honest about where your board currently is, how you hope it could shift, and what role you think they could play in changing the board.
Authentic board engagement around equity can’t be forced or faked, and boards can’t do the necessary work unless they’re ready. But I know from experience that boards can change — and that change doesn’t need to take years of effort. Accurately reading the signals of readiness and carefully planting the seeds for change can prepare boards to do this work, which should be a required prerequisite for conversations about diversity.
This post was first published on the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy's blog.