What Will Make Boards More Diverse?

Despite various efforts in the corporate and nonprofit sectors, people of color remain scarce in board leadership roles. There are no quick fixes, but intentionality is critical.

Building diverse boards remains a challenge—indeed there’s evidence that recent efforts toward board diversity aren’t meeting the task.

That’s the argument of a pair of management scholars in a recent article in the MIT Sloan Management Review titled “Meet the New Board—Same as the Old Board.”

Based on interviews with leaders involved in the selection process for 51 public companies, Cynthia E. Clark and Jill A. Brown found that diversity considerations often get deprioritized. As they put it, companies “go through the motions … but ultimately accomplish little, replacing an outgoing director with someone similar rather than with a person who has a different professional background, identity, or perspective.”

Clark and Brown report that the leaders they interviewed typically build their searches around industry knowledge and particular skill sets, and only think about diversity factors after that. Using industry needs and leadership skills as search criteria for board talent isn’t an error, of course—I’ve spoken to plenty of association leaders who’ve created matrices designed to highlight those kinds of gaps that need closing. But diversity is one of those gaps too—and smarter matrices include them in the first pass. Without that kind of attention, Clark and Brown write, organizations “can reinforce existing inequities [and] tap their existing networks—of people similar to themselves—to identify candidates.”

Many board-search committees go through the motions but ultimately accomplish little.

To be clear, the authors are talking about the corporate realm, which unlike nonprofitdom can be looser about term limits and also often compensates board members, making for a different dynamic. But the news isn’t good on nonprofits on this front either. A 2021 study by the Urban Institute found that while more people of color are sitting on the boards of 501(c)(3) organizations, they tend not to have board chair positions

Addressing that gap, as ever, requires some intentionality. To keep talk about diversity from devolving into generalities, Clark and Brown write, organizations need to define what they mean by it, particularly around diversity of identity. (Prudential Financial, they note, specifically defines it in terms of “people of color, women, LGBTQ+, differently-abled, and veterans.”) But to avoid a tick-the-box approach to board diversification, they note, those efforts need to be part of a broader one about board culture. Are you looking for new ideas rather than consensus? Are people with different perspectives invited into leadership roles, or are they marginalized?

“Prompt directors to think about and freely discuss the existing board culture, including their own behavior and whether it needs to change,” they write. (They also recommend that CEOs keep their distance from the board nomination process. A little while back I wrote about how this can be a tricky challenge for association leaders.)

But just as organizations should look at their internal processes, they should also look at what’s happening in their organization more broadly. What does your membership look like? Is the board reflective of it? Can the board do more to have membership reflect the larger population? Knowing where you’re at generally—and setting goals to where you want to be—can help diversity initiatives from becoming empty gestures.

Earlier this year, American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine CEO Wendy-Jo Toyama, FASAE, CAE, stressed that point to me: look at the broader population, and make addressing diversity gaps somebody’s specific job. “If you want your board to reflect the membership and the membership to reflect the population, you have to start capturing data on members,” she said. “Associations are way too skittish about doing that.”

What does your board diversification effort look like? 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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