The Conversation Before the Diversity Conversation

A new study shows that diverse boards reap benefits for nonprofits. It also shows that success is built on first paying close attention to making the entire board passionate and engaged.

What can diversity do for a board?

In recent years both the corporate and nonprofit sectors have seen the virtues in having leadership that reflects the makeup of their membership, or of the country. Studies have shown that diverse boards make for stronger, longer-tenured CEOs. And it’s long been argued that diverse boards—be it in terms of age, race, or gender—help create the kind of healthy disruption that organizations need to bring in new ideas.

A new study from Indiana University brings a little more clarity to what kind of direct effects diverse boards can have. “The Impact of Diversity,” [PDF] produced by the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI), with the help of Johnson, Grossnickle and Associates and BoardSource, uses BoardSource data and case-study interviews. Last month AssociationsNow.com’s Ernie Smith summarized a few of the findings—among them, that boards with more younger members and women are more committed and involved, and those with more women have seen more success on the public policy and fundraising fronts.

Greater diversity will lead to a more engaged board.

“Diverse board members have the capacity to improve the organization’s philanthropic engagement through increased board member participation, fundraising and advocacy,” IUPUI dean Una Osili said in a statement about the report.

Associations have been hit-and-miss in terms of addressing those issues—ASAE benchmarking studies have shown that while all-male boards are rare, younger and nonwhite still have a hard time finding a seat at the table. (Seventy-seven percent of boards did not have a member under 30, according to a 2012 report.)

But the IUPUI study is careful to point out that while “the pursuit of board diversity delivers its own rewards,” diversity for its own sake is a dead end. The report cautions against tokenism, and instead stresses the inclusion part of D&I, encouraging organizations to pursue both functional inclusion (marginalized voices, better accountability to members) and social inclusion (ensuring that all members share a voice within the group).

That’s important, because while the study shows that diversity can improve engagement, the process of thinking about diversity is behind much of that improvement. One theme that emerges in the case studies in the report is the importance of seeking out passionate board members and making sure that expectations are set for them during the onboarding process. The Crocker Art Museum “makes it clear to board members that they are to be engaged in fundraising, and ensures that staff know that they are to support the board in that work.” At Pets Are Wonderful Support (New York), “new board members are heavily vetted, with a focus on inviting only those who are committed to the mission and to being active board members.” CoveCare center has an “onboarding program that seeks to engage board members immediately and fully educate them on their roles.”

“If boards clearly define their priorities and foster a culture of continuous learning, greater diversity will lead to a more engaged board,” Angela E. White, senior consultant and CEO of Johnson, Grossnickle and Associates told Nonprofit Times. Note how much of a load that if is bearing, though—much of an association board’s success in terms of D&I will be a function of broader thinking about what kind of work the board will be doing, how much engagement it requires, and what kind of spark it needs to stay engaged.

I’ve written before about the cultural challenge that associations face when it comes to onboarding—it’s all too common for organizations to assume that just because they’ve assembled successful business leaders in one room, that they have the talent and drive to guide and improve the organization. “Onboarding can’t be a one-hour, here’s-your-binder event,” the report notes. “It must be an ongoing process that involves mentoring, immersion in mission, and more.” Diversity is essential to an association’s success, and as the study suggests, has the power to improve it. But thinking ahead about what the board and organization needs as a whole will go a long way to helping diverse board do the good work they can do.

How does your organization work diversity into its discussions of governance? Share your experiences in the comments.

(courtneyk/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Mark Athitakis

By 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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