First Steps to More Diverse Boards

A new study says nonprofit boards are slow to pursue diversity and inclusion efforts. Fixing the problem will require a lot of will and a little patience.

When people say that conversations about diversity start at the top, they usually mean the CEO. But the thing about associations is that there are two tops to consider—the staff leader and the board. Without the board’s own awareness of diversity and inclusion issues, support for D+I from the CEO to staff and members risks withering.

That’s one key conclusion from a recent report from the executive recruiting firm Koya Leadership Partners. In “The Governance Gap: Examining Diversity and Equity on Nonprofit Boards of Directors” [PDF], the study’s authors draw a direct line from board diversity to diversity throughout an organization.

“Time and again, our board clients tell us that it’s critically important to build a diverse pool of candidates and that they want to hire a CEO or executive director who is representative of diversity in some way,” says the report, which is based on a survey of members of 102 nonprofit boards. “But we’ve seen how difficult it is for boards and organizations that aren’t diverse or inclusive to recruit and retain leaders of color.”

Take a step back and have an open conversation about why diversity is important for the board and the organization.

The study reveals slack engagement with the issue, at best. Seventy percent of the survey’s respondents say they’re not satisfied with the current state of diversity in their boards, but fewer than half say they’ve taken any action to increase diverse representation on their boards. Why do they say this isn’t happening? Slightly more than half say it’s because of a “lack of access to qualified candidates.” It’s the quintessential vicious circle: Make no effort to try to find people who might broaden your board’s range of backgrounds, experience, and ideas, and when those people aren’t there, say it’s because you can’t find them.

But let’s take that 70 percent of respondents at their word and assume that most boards want to make good-faith effort to diversify. What helps speed that process along?

First some candid conversations are in order, say the report’s authors. “Rather than immediately leaping into the action of recruiting new board members, it may be helpful to take a step back and have an open conversation about why diversity is important for the board and the organization that you serve as board members,” they write. “Becoming a more diverse and inclusive organization or board requires growth and awareness on both a personal and an organizational level. It’s critical to recognize that every individual on your board may come to the table with a different understanding of what diversity means, a different vocabulary for talking about these issues, and a different level of personal awareness of their own biases.”

Which is to say that the process can be slow and sometimes difficult. Last fall I wrote about two associations that successfully diversified their boards, and both recognized early on that they had a long road ahead of them. The Online News Association, for instance, pursued a decade-long process of moving from a place where diversity wasn’t on its radar to seating a board half of whose members were people of color and a majority of whom were women. ONA got there by owning the problem, first by creating a diversity committee, and then by creating a diversity appointment to its board—a public signal to membership that it was taking the matter seriously.

“You have to accept [the problem] as an organization,” ONA Executive Director Irving W. Washington, CAE, told me at the time. “It can’t just be a few people, it can’t just be the staff, it can’t just be the board. I think the whole organization from the leadership down needs to accept that it is a problem.”

And at the Maryland Psychological Association, leadership came to understand that having a D+I statement alone wasn’t enough and actively recruited members from diverse backgrounds. Face-to-face engagement can be a boon to this process, MPA CEO Stefanie Reeves, CAE, told me: “Invite a few of them to your office, provide them with lunch, and really get some feedback from them. Why are you engaged? Why are you involved? What would make you engage even more?”

This shouldn’t be a quick process. Speeding your way to diversity risks tokenism and a sense that D+I is something you’ll commit to for a fiscal year or two and then set aside. D+I isn’t a fashion, but a strategy—what you do when you recognize the importance of bringing in as many different voices as you can to determine the best path for your organization.

What has helped your association not just launch but sustain D&I efforts within your leadership? Share your experiences in the comments.

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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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