Leadership

A First Step to Better Board Diversity

By / Nov 10, 2014 (iStockPhoto/Thinkstock)

Boards still struggle with diversity. One association’s effort to shake up its task forces offers a possible path to a solution.

Boards tend to be mediocre. There, I said it.

Well, actually, everybody said it. In a recent BoardSource survey, more than 1,000 chief executives and board chairs collectively gave their boards a B minus for their performance. As my colleague Katie Bascuas reported last week, though the respondents gave boards high marks for mission focus and financial oversight, diversity and fundraising are seriously lacking.

A B minus is a “meh” grade, too far from failure to be catastrophic, but far from excellence; it’s the kind of neither-here-nor-there grade you can joke about. But the things that drag down the grade are dispiriting. BoardSource sketched out some of the early findings from its study, Leading With Intent, in an infographic. More is coming, but it’s already clear that board diversity will be a central issue in the larger nonprofit sector, as it has long been in the association community. Sixty-nine percent of respondents were disappointed with their boards’ racial and ethnic diversity; 80 percent of board members are white.

69 percent of respondents were disappointed with their boards’ racial and ethnic diversity; 80 percent of board members are white.

Efforts to improve board diversity in associations are haphazard: According to Beth Gazley and Ashley Bowers’ What Makes High-Performing Boards, less than a third of associations have diversity requirements on board seats, and in those cases the requirements are often more focused on membership status and geography. (Less than 10 percent had requirements that focused on race or gender.) This, despite the fact that “Boards with diversity and representational requirements achieve minor gains in strategic performance and internal accountability,” as the author writes.

So what are some steps toward a solution?

ASAE has its own initiative on that front to help organizations determine where they’re at. But the next step toward improving the diversity of the board likely means disrupting the process by which people arrive on it. And doing that means shaking up the intersection of the board members of the organization. Which is why, though it isn’t strictly a diversity initiative, I like what Eric Lanke is doing in his role as CEO of the National Fluid Power Association.

In a recent blog post, Lanke wrote about how NFPA recently altered the structure of some of its task forces: Instead of restricting participation to board members alone, as it had in the past, the association included non-board members as well. “We focused on two distinct groups,” Lanke writes. “(1) Members of key stakeholder groups that were under-represented on the Board; and (2) Individuals who had expressed interest and who we were beginning to groom for possible Board service in the future.”

This kind of injection of new blood into a board is risky, especially if a board’s culture is such that it’s composed of people who are consumed by “it’s my turn”-ism and treat outsiders as an invasive species. But on the evidence of Lanke’s report, the members and leadership appreciated the opportunity to interact, and the members were grateful to be doing valuable work—which they can apply in the future in their efforts to play a role on the board.

Again, what NFPA did wasn’t a diversity initiative. But it was inspired in part by concerns with underrepresentation on the board, and concerns with how to bring new leaders into the fold. As a diversity initiative, work like Lanke’s is easily applicable for associations that want to diversify without formalizing bylaw rules. It’s respectable to see nonprofits candidly give themselves poor marks on diversity, but what matters is what they do to bring their grades up.

What are you doing to improve the diversity of your boards, or the leadership ladder that leads toward it? Share your experiences in the comments.

Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. More »

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