COVID-19 has pressed associations to build boards with people who are flexible and eager to lead, and who bring new perspectives to the table. Diversity initiatives offer a path to get there.
Among the many things that COVID-19 has revealed about associations is the need to rethink what they need in their boards. Of course, associations often struggle to build and support effective boards outside of crisis mode, but now matters are more urgent.
One example of that need for change comes from a survey published earlier this month by the National Association of Corporate Directors. The survey shows that, at least for the short term, the pandemic has pushed aside familiar matters like onboarding and succession planning as top concerns. Rather, the directors surveyed say that their top governance challenges involve “shaping a realistic post-crisis strategy,” “ensuring the ongoing health and safety of employees,” and “getting up to speed on all the emerging risk dimensions of the crisis.” Board leaders are confident in their organizations—92 percent are sure their firms will survive the crisis. But thanks to the coronavirus, the tools they’ll need may change.
Those challenges are likely not that much different in associations and the larger nonprofit industry. But will associations have the people they need for the task? That remains a struggle. According to BDO’s annual Nonprofit Standards benchmarking survey, more than half of the organizations reporting (54 percent) say that attracting quality leadership will be a challenge in 2020.
So new skills are necessary, but the old problem of bringing in engaged leaders hasn’t gone away. What to do?
Diversity efforts are too often treated as something to check off a to-do list.
Neither report addresses it, but part of the solution may come by solving another problem that associations have often been loath to tackle: board diversity. Race to Lead Revisited [PDF], a new report from the Building Movement Project, an organization that promotes social change in nonprofitdom, notes that many of the challenges regarding diversity, equity, and inclusion at nonprofits remain persistent, both on staff and on boards. And in some cases, the problem is worse: According to the report, “people of color were substantially more likely to state that race is a barrier to their advancement, while white respondents were more likely to agree that their race provides a career advantage. People of all races were more likely to agree with statements describing obstacles people of color face in obtaining leadership positions.”
That’s all the more frustrating because the report demonstrates not just that there is a leadership pipeline of people who are prepared to bring new ideas into organizations, but that those organizations might perform better if they were brought in. According to the report, “Both people of color and white respondents report a far better experience in POC-led groups,” and a lack of engagement with people of color has an impact on workers’ tenure and satisfaction. Those working for organizations that are predominantly white-led are less likely to say they’ll be happy working there three years from now, or that they feel they have a voice in the organization, or that they’re given equitable opportunities for advancement and promotion.
And efforts to close the gap are perceived differently by different groups: While more than half of white respondents (54 percent) say their organizations are developing recruitment strategies to increase diversity, only 40 percent of people of color say that’s the case. Too often, DEI is relegated to a training session that many see as “a means to check DEI efforts off an organizational to-do list,” according to the report.
A more robust approach, the authors say, “requires setting and meeting targets for bringing on candidates, instituting effective onboarding and support for new staff and board members, and being willing to shift power—that is, to listen to the observations and recommendations of staff and board members of color, and to change the organization’s policies and practices accordingly.”
That kind of power shift, in itself, will not solve the problems associations are facing today. What it can do is demonstrate a real commitment to new ideas and processes that are essential to leading through the current crises—and what comes after.