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When it comes to managing a nonprofit, establishing a board of directors sets a foundation for the future. The board members you choose sets the tone for the organization overall—making decisions on leadership personnel, putting out a vision for the NPO and leading the nonprofit in a specific direction.
Your board matters, and the decision of who should be appointed to it should not be taken lightly. If you want a well-rounded nonprofit, then your board should be well-rounded as well. Diversifying your board of directors means more than just having a good mix of people—it means taking intentional steps toward diversity of every measure in your leadership.
Diversity as an Issue
You may think: “Sure, diversity matters, but it cannot be that big of a problem. Surely boards are doing pretty well at diversifying.” Unfortunately, this tends to be far from the truth. According to Nonprofit Quarterly, 45 percent of nonprofit boards and 69 percent of nonprofit CEOs feel dissatisfied with their board’s diversity. Additionally, 71 percent of boards and 75 percent of CEOs think a more diverse board would improve the nonprofit’s fulfillment of their mission.
However, between the years 2010 and 2015, board diversity grew by only 4 percent. In fact, according to Fast Company in 2017, 90 percent of CEOs and 84 percent of all board members are white. These numbers are actually up from 2015, which revealed 89 percent and 80 percent, respectively.
Diversity can also mean more than just racial involvement, though. Diversity represents the inclusion of different genders, sexual orientations, socioeconomic statuses, ages, resources, personal and professional backgrounds and yes—even opinions. In general, nonprofit boards tend to be made up of white, heterosexual men who come from a high socioeconomic status and have similar backgrounds and opinions. So, while current board members and executives may feel like diversity is an issue, and even want to rectify it, something does not quite connect between the desire and the outcome.
Networking as an Issue
How can this be? How can there be a desire for more diversity, but a disconnect in actual execution? Turns out, the biggest issue is in networking. More often than not, new board members are recruited from within the current board’s own social network. The recruitment process tends to be fairly random. If a nonprofit organization needs a board position filled, they reach out to current board members, who reach out to their social networks and companies they feel connected with, who send out a general email or ask informally if anyone is interested.
However, generally speaking, our social networks tend to be pretty racially homogenous. In fact, 91 percent of white Americans’ social networks are other white Americans. So when Caucasians already dominate the majority of nonprofit boards, then it tends to follow that Caucasians will continue to be added to these nonprofit boards. A similar conclusion can be said for gender, socioeconomic status, age, background—all of it.
The fact is that as a society, we hang around people who look, think and behave like we do. Oftentimes, this decision is not even consciously made. We tend to feel more comfortable around people who are similar to us, so we associate and network with those people. Therefore, this type of seemingly harmless—though ignorant—networking becomes an issue when people already on our nonprofit boards continue to add more people like them.
Benefits of Board Diversity
So now we have identified the issue of diversity, along with the disconnect between desiring more diversity and actually acting upon it. But why diversify in the first place? Turns out, there are quite a few benefits in diversifying your board of directors. Jeri Eckhart-Queenan, a partner at The Bridgespan Group, states, “The most effective boards are those that are able to bring together a diverse group of people that bring a range of thought and perspective.”
Diversifying your board of directors makes your nonprofit an overall more efficient organization. Benefits of diversity include more effective decision making, better utilization of a wide talent pool and establishing the NPO as a responsible corporation. When you have a wide range of perspectives, opinions and thoughts, your board pools together more potential outcomes, and can make better-informed decisions. Not only this, but you also have the opportunity to utilize a wider range of talent when your board is more diverse. Rather than working with similar people who have similar talents, bringing in new and different members widens that pool and gives your nonprofit more resources for the future.
And of course, diversifying your board members establishes your nonprofit as a responsible corporation. As an NPO, you are on a mission, and you have a responsibility to represent your community fairly. Fulfilling this mission and responsibility becomes difficult without a diverse board. Simply put, representation matters and your nonprofit should demonstrate it throughout the organization.
Steps Toward Board Diversity
If your nonprofit organization wants to diversify its board of directors, there are a few steps you can take moving forward.
Assess your current diversity. Give your nonprofit a starting point by taking a close look at your current board, including diversity of appearance, backgrounds, opinions or even political standings.
Reaffirm your commitment to diversity. Maybe some current members think your board already has great diversity; maybe others disagree. Get everyone on the same page by reaffirming your nonprofit’s commitment to diversity. Write up a statement and publish it somewhere everyone involved can refer back to it in the future.
Be intentional in recruitment. Random networking will not get your board to the level of diversity it requires. Instead, be very intentional in recruiting and appointing new board members. Look for skills, rather than connections or how well they might “fit in.” Most importantly, be proactive in recruiting board members who are different from the current ones. Networking and sharing about open positions on a whim will get you the same exact results every time; but actively and intentionally seeking out individuals who can bring something new to your team will bring effective changes.
When managing a nonprofit, diversifying your board of directors matters in establishing a well-rounded and effective organization. Evaluate your current board and take steps towards better diversity today.
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