Leadership

BoardSource: Nonprofit Board Diversity Hasn't Improved in Decades

By / Sep 8, 2017 (PeopleImages/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

A new report says that more than 80 percent of nonprofit board members are white, a number that looks remarkably similar to the group’s findings from a 1994 index survey. It’s time for words to be backed up by action to improve board diversity, according to BoardSource’s CEO.

When it comes to board diversity, things aren’t getting worse, but they’re definitely not getting better.

In the latest edition of its biennial Leading with Intent index report [PDF] of nonprofit board practices, BoardSource shows that even though many nonprofit executives have stated strong support for bringing more diversity to the board table, little progress has been made over the past 20 years.

In its survey of more than 1,700 chief executives and board chairs at an array of nonprofits, BoardSource found that 90 percent of CEOs and board chairs were white, as were 84 percent of all board members. And more than one in four boards (27 percent) was made up entirely of white members.

The numbers have barely budged since the initial study in 1994, which found that 86 percent of board members were white. In 2012, 82 percent were white.

“It’s just really, really clear that, when it comes to more diversity, we’re stuck,” BoardSource CEO Anne Wallestad told Fast Company this week.

That scenario doesn’t square with what most CEOs and many volunteer leaders say about the value of diversity at the board table, according to the study. Almost two out of three CEOs (65 percent) said they were dissatisfied with the racial and ethnic diversity of their boards; four out of 10 board chairs said the same. “It is possible chief executives express higher levels of dissatisfaction with the board’s racial and ethnic diversity because they are more exposed to the way it is affecting their organization,” the report notes.

Wallestad pointed out the disconnect between words and action on board diversity. “The issue here is that despite what boards and executives are saying about the importance of diversity for their organizations’ mission and work, they are not prioritizing diversity in their board recruitment practices. And so there’s a real dissonance there between values and words, and actions and tangible work.”

In a recent blog post for The Huffington Post, Wallestad emphasized that “a board that lacks racial and ethnic diversity risks a dangerous deficit in understanding on issues of critical importance to the organization’s work and the people it serves.”

She continued:

Consider the impact of a board, in today’s environment, that doesn’t understand how race and racism are impacting the people that they serve. A board that is oblivious to the fear and pain that is unleashed on entire communities when white supremacists march openly and without universal condemnation. A board that struggles to understand the significance of changed policies and protections for immigrants. A board that can dismiss to “politics as usual” realities that are — for those they serve — deeply painful and destructive.

The report offers several suggestions for executives to prompt board “reflection and consideration” on board diversity, including helping board members gain a deeper understanding of the organization’s work, exploring the organization’s values relating to diversity and inclusion, and working to build a culture of trust, respect, and accountability on the board.

“Talking about the importance of diversity isn’t enough. We must back it up with real action,” she said. “If we don’t, it amounts to little more than lip service. And with the stakes so high, that’s simply not enough.”

Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the social media journalist for Associations Now, a former newspaper guy, and a man who is dangerous when armed with a good pun. More »

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