Diversity is critical to board effectiveness, and the right representation doesn’t happen by accident. These tips can help you make an honest assessment of where your board stands now and whether you need to add new perspectives.
Without a diverse board, your association will likely fall short of its full potential. There’s plenty of evidence that a homogeneous group is less likely to present fresh ideas, offer unique perspectives, and challenge traditional ways of thinking.
The first step to building a more diverse board is to assess where the board stands today. But it can be difficult to identify your own board’s shortcomings and know what your ideal board composition should be. Without an honest self-assessment, unconscious biases may remain.
“It’s important to have diversity, and you have to go out of your way and work at it,” says Dennis C. Miller, founder of DCM Associates and expert in nonprofit leadership search and board leadership coaching. “A good board will evaluate its CEO. A great board will evaluate itself.”
Use these tips to guide you through the assessment process.
Identify Your Board’s Core Competencies
Ask yourself what core competencies your board should possess, and put together a list of skills its members need to have. From there, you can identify where your board is deficient and focus your recruitment efforts on candidates who fill those skills gaps. Miller recommends identifying candidates with particular skills instead of choosing board members based on their career history or occupation. This will expand your pool of candidates, as skills-based hiring is often more inclusive.
Key competencies for board success include group skills, interpersonal skills, personal leadership skills, technical skills, and personal attributes such as integrity.
Ask Whether Your Board Reflects Your Community
Your board’s composition should mirror the community it serves. This means representing not only your community’s racial, gender, and age diversity, but also its diversity in areas such as sexual orientation, nationality, experience, and geographic location.
If your board doesn’t represent your community, it will be more difficult to understand how to serve your members effectively, and surveys have shown this to be a common issue among nonprofit organizations.
The exception is for organizations that serve a specific demographic group. “I work with organizations that are associations for Hispanic business owners—they’re going to represent mostly Hispanic individuals, and [so a heavily Hispanic board is] acceptable,” Miller says.
Take Advantage of Online Assessment Tools
Boards can more accurately assess their composition using tools such as online assessment surveys. These allow board members and executive leadership to provide feedback anonymously so that organizations receive honest insights into how they’re performing in certain areas, such as board diversity and representation.
From there, a third-party organization or consultant can collect those results, evaluate them, and provide next steps on how your organization can improve. Self-assessments come with limitations, so getting an outside perspective can help you identify a lack of diversity and inclusion that your board may not see or be unwilling to admit in a survey.
Miller also recommends that associations survey their members periodically to get their thoughts on the board’s performance and representativeness.
Evaluate Member Retention
If you see memberships lapsing more heavily among a certain segment of your community, it could be a sign that those members are not adequately represented at the highest levels of your organization, including on your board.
“If you are a state association—let’s say New York—and all your members are from Long Island and New York City, then you don’t have enough representation in Albany and Orange County,” Miller says.
Consult With Your Governance Committee
A governance committee’s purpose is to ensure that your organization’s board of directors is functioning appropriately and efficiently, and diversity and inclusion is part of that equation. The committee may have board recruitment guidelines you can follow to make sure your board is composed of a diverse group of individuals.
“It’s probably the most important committee of a trade association board,” Miller says. “Board recruitment is an effort. There are guidelines and practices one can follow, and it should not just be ‘Who do you know?’ but ‘What do you need?’”