There has been a lot of reporting in the Not for Profit media about the recent BoardSource study on Nonprofit Board practices, Leading with Intent. The report indicates that diverse representation on nonprofit Boards is extremely low. In addition, when comparing to previous reports, diversity is not improving. The report further indicates that nonprofit executives and Chairs are dissatisfied with the level of diversity on their Boards.
Many organizations have embraced the idea that diversity is good and are working to increase diversity in management and leadership positions. Some have created senior positions focused on diversity. While there is still a lot of work to do, there is progress or at least effort. Why not at the Board level?
There are two potential issues, demand and supply. Since there is no magic wand (or blog post) that will suddenly increase the supply of NFP Board candidates, this article will focus on the demand side. Look for thoughts on the supply side in a future post.
Why Board Diversity is a NFP Sector Issue
The Not for Profit sector relies heavily on the goodwill it has developed to serve its client communities fairly, responsibly and competently. While there is little doubt that most NFPs perform in line with those expectations, the lack of Board diversity leads to questions. Can a non-diverse Board guide an organization sustainably? As diversity grows in corporate and public sectors, is the NFP sector falling behind and how will that impact philanthropy in the future?
Transformational Power of Diversity
Increasing diversity benefits any group because it adds and expands capabilities, both on an organizational level and on a personal level. However, saying goodbye to the status quo is never easy, so to encourage Boards and Chairs to make diversity a priority, the following are five ways diversity can have a huge positive impact on your Board.
This article defines diversity broadly as “not the same.” This includes age, sex, race, socio-economic, orientation, experience, etc.
Do you know the likely opinions of your fellow Board members on any topic before they state them? Then perhaps your Board needs some new perspectives. Diversity is a path to broadening your Board’s perspective (and your own). Regardless of what type of diversity you bring into the Board, you will get some new opinions. Even better, these new members will share thoughts on improving or changing your existing practices. New perspectives keep discussions fresh and current. They can also uncover creative solutions and through positive conflict can elevate the debate on tough issues.
New Skill Sets
Do you have a millennial or a “Gen Y” on your Board? If not, your Board may not have access to some very helpful skill sets. These folks utilize technology differently and access information in ways and from sources that folks in previous generations do not.
Are there recurring issues that your organization’s executives are struggling with? If the Board is not able to add value, then look for new members with skill sets aligned to those issues. For example, if the organization is struggling to develop future leaders, consider finding a new member with a background in development.
By adding new skill sets, you allow the Board to integrate new, focused knowledge which will improve strategic planning and oversight of management activities.
Subject Matter Advocates
Is your organization moving into new programs as a result of client changes or new strategies? If so, you may need to find Board members that are able to advocate about those new areas of operations. There may be new types of legal issues or problematic challenges which the organization has never faced before. Identify the types of diverse subject matter experts that are needed to align Board capabilities with the organization’s Strategic Plan.
Similar to adding new skill sets, add thought leaders in the areas where your organization is involved or is heading. These folks can challenge the organization to develop faster and decrease risks associated with transitions into new services.
When your ED comes to the Board with an unusual issue, does the Board have people in their personal networks that can help? If your Board was built (as many are) by bringing in candidates from existing Board members’ networks, then the overall total network may not be as broad as it needs to be.
New diverse members bring with them colleagues and contacts that will likely be unknown to the current membership. Every one of those second level contacts opens up even more access to new people that could help the organization.
Can a community of people be helped sustainably by a NFP organization whose leadership has no representation from the community? This is not meant to be a criticism of those who serve currently. NFP organizations have been providing service this way for a long time. However, times are changing and NFP’s that do not change with them will be left behind.
Building diversity on the Board increases credibility not only in the client community, but from a funder perspective as well. It shows that the Board is open to new and different ideas and that the Board is aware of the changes happening at all levels of leadership within organizations.
If I haven’t convinced you yet, let me try a different approach. What is the downside risk of the status quo?
- NFPs will have their roles challenged by the new realities of social enterprises, B-Corps and the advent of corporate social responsibility.
- Lack of diversity is already taking its toll. NFPs have failed because they did not anticipate or respond to changing needs in the communities they serve.
- Funders are experiencing diversity of their own. What will your Board do if a major funder asks about your diversity or about your client community representation on the Board?
- Donors have access to more information about NFPs than ever before. Could Board and organization diversity become a factor in their donation decision?
Diversity is the reality of progress. It is happening and those who embrace it are seeing incredible benefits. It can be challenging, especially to start, so Boards need to commit to and champion efforts at diversity. While your next Board member should be the person most qualified and capable to meet your Board’s needs, adding diverse members should be a priority need. Diversity can provide transformation benefits to the Board by adding perspective, skills, and expertise. In addition, it can expand networks and reinforce the organization’s credibility in client and funder communities. Don’t let your Board remain behind.
For additional thoughts on Board Diversity, check out this post from Nonprofit Board Crisis blog
Personal note from author:
As a leader in both For Profit and Not for Profit organizations, I have been fortunate to have inherited or built several diverse teams and functions. I don’t just embrace or value diversity, I treasure it. I know that my knowledge and experience have been enriched by the incredible folks that I interact with. Since I, as a Caucasian male, don’t check off too many diversity boxes, I feel it is my responsibility to discuss this topic and challenge the NFP sector to improve.
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