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Practical Steps Toward More Diverse Boards

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As racial justice issues took center stage in 2020, many organizations reaffirmed commitments to board diversity. To make sure future boards are as diverse as the membership, associations can employ several forward-looking strategies.

Last year, as social justice issues emerged in the wake of George Floyd’s death, a stronger spotlight was shone on the issue of diversity among association volunteer leaders. And while many organizations committed to diversifying their boards, that change doesn’t happen overnight. Building leadership diversity is a process, and it can start now, with some concrete moves toward that goal, experts say.

“Most boards do not reflect the diversity of their constituencies,” says Cie Armstead, director of diversity and inclusion at the American College of Healthcare Executives. “There is still a lot of work to do.”

The Credit Union National Association added diversity and inclusion to its guiding principles in 2019 and has been working to increase diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) throughout the credit union sector, including on boards.

“The most effective way to approach board diversity is to acknowledge that it takes time. It is a continuous journey and has to mirror the evolution of our communities,” says Samira Salem, Ph.D., vice president for DEI at CUNA.

A requirement that new board members have 10 years of CEO or executive director experience would automatically lock out people—many from underrepresented groups—who have not had those opportunities in their field.

How to Get There

The first step on that journey is to commit to it. “Board leaders can and should establish a commitment to DEI,” Salem says. “They should take a formal stance against suppression.”

Once they’ve done that, association leaders can take several practical steps toward diversifying their board and building a more diverse leadership pipeline:

Assess where the board currently stands. “They have to start from where they are,” Armstead says. She recommends having an outsider guide the assessment, if possible. “Human nature is we can’t see our own shortcomings,” she says. If it’s not feasible to bring in outside help, “I would suggest approaching this as many other organizational objectives that fall under change management. Take those same principles and adapt them to that work.”

Identify the qualities you want in board candidates. “Reexamine the current criteria for board membership,” Armstead says. “Not lowering the standards, not compromising the standards, but reexamining the criteria.”

For example, a requirement that new board members have 10 years of CEO or executive director experience would automatically lock out people—many from underrepresented groups—who have not had those opportunities in their field. Instead, Armstead says, figure out what skill the board is trying to get at with that 10-year requirement. “The board would step back and say, What are we looking for? Is this time requirement a reflection of commitment to the organization? Experience as an indicator of what?” Teasing that out will allow the board to identify requirements that don’t exclude some candidates from the get-go.

Abandon exclusionary recruitment practices. The common past practice of bringing in new board members recommended by current leadership tends to result in homogeneous boards. “Take a courageous look at the process for identifying board candidates,” Armstead says. “Some associations, even if they have a committee that [has a process in place], when they get behind closed doors they say, ‘Who do you know?’ Do a candid and courageous look at what is the process.”

Broadening the pool of potential candidates is important, and it may require partnering with other organizations. “We reach out to credit-union-centric diverse groups,” Salem says. “One of the seams woven through these efforts is building trust through stakeholders involved.”

She says some member credit unions have diversified their boards in ways that went beyond commitment and recruitment. Some reduced the size of their board so they could rebuild with more diversity, while others slowly added new, diverse members over time.

“One particular credit union—whose process included early-on training and education around DEI—said it took around eight years to get where they feel like they have a board that reflects their members and community,” she says.

The time and effort are worth it. “This work is ultimately not transactional,” Salem says. “It’s meant to be transformational.”

And long-term organizational results speak for themselves. “Inclusive organizations outperform those that are not inclusive,” Armstead says.

Rasheeda Childress

Rasheeda Childress is an associate editor at Associations Now. She covers money and business. Email her with story ideas or news tips.

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