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How to Prepare Your Organization to Build Board Diversity

While the nonprofit sector has been talking about equity over the last decade, little progress has been made with respect to nonprofit leadership. According to a 2017 Survey, 84% of nonprofit board members are white, as are 90% of nonprofit Chief Executives. This longstanding imbalance of the racial makeup of our leadership is simply one example of how white supremacy has persisted throughout the sector. Ultimately, it has a negative impact on an organization’s mission and can lead to staff turnover and low morale, especially if the majority of staff and/or people served are BIPOC.

What can an organization do today to work towards change?


The science of innovation tells us that in order to create, to grow and to evolve, we need diversity. Multiple viewpoints enhance decision-making and design processes. But how does it functionally work? The first step of organizational change is to invite more voices to the conversation. At the Board level, what does that look like? What structural changes can be put in place to create a foundation for the Board to function with equity principles in mind?

First, establish clear Board expectations. Review and update Board policies and procedures to set a baseline for Board Governance and Engagement in all activities. In particular, formally adopt a Board member job description and the use of a Board Commitment form that reflects more than financial support. The traditional “Give/Get” does not encourage equity or diversity. Instead, the Board Commitment form should include participating in committee work, connecting personal networks to the organization, and bringing other skill sets and perspectives to the Board. Here are samples from Board Source and Center for Nonprofit Leadership work considering. Laying this groundwork will help to create a more inclusive environment for any leader to thrive.

Second, commit to provide ongoing training necessary for success. Educational opportunities provide baseline information for Board members that equip them to excel in their role. This might take many different forms, such as an intensive Board retreat, or the inclusion of articles in monthly Board packets. Topics should cover broad industry trends and best practices as well as focused learnings in key strategic areas like fund development. This helps new Board members, who may be unfamiliar with nonprofit Board roles, feel confident in their ability to add value. Be consistent in language around Board roles, incorporating ‘Ambassador’, ‘Advocates’, and ‘Askers’ into the Board lexicon (see our recent post explaining these roles in the Triple-A Board Model).

Third, create a Board culture that values listening. Once we’ve got more people at the table and multiple perspectives and communities are represented, we need to communicate effectively with one another. This is where the science of communication tells us that the most important part of any conversation is listening. Taking care to listen to ALL of the voices now represented at your table gives weight behind your desire to make change.

One final, yet critically important suggestion: be sure to avoid an attitude of tokenism. Do not place inappropriate expectations on your diverse volunteer leaders. Consider bringing on a cohort of new diverse Board members together, so that they can each speak for themselves and not be expected to represent an entire community/population.

When approached with intention and thoughtfulness, implementation of these strategies will begin to position your Board to attract diverse leadership candidates and to realize the power of difference and inclusion.

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