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How to Create Board Diversity for the Long Haul

In a stack of thirty grant applications, one stood out. It was well written, brief, and contained a mix of clarifying facts and stories. The nonprofit’s answer to the board composition was exceptional. It included a small table showing that the board had representatives from every demographic group. At the review meeting, a panelist praised the board’s makeup. “Your board diversity is outstanding. Do the numbers still look like this?”

“Yes, well about that . . .” said the CEO, standing in front of the microphone as he turned red, shuffled his feet, and looked down. “In all honesty,” he looked at the panelist and paused, “when we wrote the application that was the board’s composition. Since then we’ve had some resignations because of family issues, health problems, and the like. We’re in the process of rebuilding.”

As I talk with nonprofit CEOs, I hear the desire for greater board diversity a lot. Sometimes the desire springs from external forces. Donors require it. Other times the need arises from internal motivation. You look at your board, staff, and customers and see vastly different groups. Whatever your motivation, you are on to something. Board and organizational diversity is important to nonprofits. Diversity improves access to resources, including money. It enhances decision-making. Diverse groups learn from more perspectives. When you gather diverse people, you can gather different experiences to use as fuel for innovations.

In response to this desire for diversity, most nonprofits try to recruit more diverse board members. While this can work, it often leads to an ongoing recruitment struggle, because a fill-the-slot approach results in turnover. Instead of board diversity, seek diversity for your whole organization. Organization diversity means that diverse groups are represented throughout your nonprofit, including your board, staff, committees, customers, volunteers, and donors. Making the goal organization-wide will help you to solve your board diversity needs long-term and enhance your nonprofit’s sustainability.

Commit to Organizational Diversity
Developing organizational diversity starts with leadership. Often the CEO initiates it because he or she recognizes the need first. To be more diverse, you must start with making increased diversity a priority that is supported by the board. This is critical for three reasons. First, when these leaders are engaged, you will have a lot more help. Second, when you become more diverse and recruit more diverse board members, these new members will stand a greater chance of being genuinely welcomed to the board. Finally, board commitment is helpful because diversity will take resources. It is more work—at least at first.

Before your board commits to diversity, they need to invest time discussing it. While you can begin this discussion as a response to donor expectations, you will gain deeper commitment by helping your leaders see diversity as a tool to achieve greater long-term success. Questions like the following can help. What have you noticed about our current diversity? How might greater diversity help us? What roadblocks keep us from greater diversity? Along the way, define what diversity means to your nonprofit. Your definition may or may not match the census or donor’s ideas.

As part of creating commitment, some groups develop diversity policies. Of course, writing a policy is not a magic fix-all. Its value comes from the conversations behind it. To create a policy, questions must be asked, answers formulated, and thinking done. Would developing a policy help you to talk more about diversity, refine thinking, and verbalize hopes, fears, and expectations?

Discussing expectations helps. For diversity to provide its benefits, new ideas and thoughts must be shared. These new ideas and wider viewpoints will slow decision-making and increase stress. Willing or unwilling, like it or not, greater diversity means personal and organizational growth. Greater diversity will mean that the way you think things are may not be the way they really are. When I brought a guest from China to the beach, she was suddenly unsteady on her feet. She was totally unprepared for the sands uneven, shifting movements. It was the first time in her life she walked on sand. Since I’ve always lived near the coast, it took some thinking to imagine a world where beach sand was only an abstract idea. We both left the beach changed.

What Will It Look Like?
Once your leaders, or at least a significant number of them, agree that diversity is desirable, identify how you will measure success. What will greater organizational diversity look like? Board composition can be one measure, but there are others. A sign of progress might be that your pools of staff applicants, potential board members, and other groups include more diverse candidates. To reach greater diversity, identify concrete ways to measure it.

How Can You Get There?
With this clarity you’re ready to develop strategies and plans to achieve greater diversity. How can you be more diverse tomorrow than today? Since no one wants to be a token, plan to engage dozens of people. Use these ideas to gather them:
• Look inside. If you already serve a diverse population, ask your customers how they found you. To whom do they go for advice? Advisors are often connectors. Ask them if they will help you to make connections.
• Reach out. Attend events and ask leaders to coffee. At your first meeting, do not invite them to be board leaders. Do ask whom they would recommend for a task force on increasing your organization’s diversity or similar element in your plan. Ask how your nonprofit might provide more value to the communities you want to grow.
• Collaborate. Can you partner to increase your diversity? Explore new ways to work with diverse grassroots organizations.
• Peer to Peer. Ask your successful peers how they solved the challenge.

Board diversity is a manifestation of organization diversity. If you seek greater board diversity, be a more diverse organization. Begin the conversation today. Explore the benefits of greater diversity with your supporters. Commit to being more diverse. Decide how you will measure it. Develop strategies and make plans. Then, go meet people and invite them to join you in your work.

Related Resources

Be a Model Board Member 5 Actions to Take To Support A Nonprofit You Love

Guilty As Charged, Prove Your Board Supports Your Nonprofit 

New Partnership Tools: Setting Expectations