How Diverse and Inclusive is Your Governing Board? Maybe Not So Much.

I present at and facilitate many nonprofit board meetings, rolling out new strategic plans, discussing board governance challenges, and addressing executive succession planning. I walk into these meetings and, by and large, the people in those rooms look just like me: gray hair, white, middle-aged and mostly men. This should immediately put me at ease, right?  Yet, it makes me increasingly uncomfortable. As a devotee to data trends and market analysis, I’m watching the demographics change. As a country, we’re becoming more and more diverse. But those leading and governing our organizations are not. The research bears this out--today’s boards lack meaningful diversity. And without those different voices, experiences, and perspectives I worry, are we (am I) losing touch with our current, potential, and future audiences, donors, and stakeholders?

Most of you are aware that studies have shown greater diversity (and equity and inclusion) among groups leads to better and more innovative decision-making and can lead to better organizational performance. So why is it that as the makeup of the country and our communities changes, those board members responsible for shaping the future of our organizations remain the same?

The answer is because it’s hard. Creating a diverse board takes a lot of work. And that work takes time, pushes us outside our comfort zones, and requires thoughtful, deliberate, and sustained action.

I know the excuses: “There aren’t enough young people/people of color/women who are strong fundraisers.” “We’ve tried but ‘they’ don’t want to join the board.”  These types of excuses must be viewed as challenges that need to be overcome. Most board recruitment processes are set up to create boards that are very much the same. White men reaching out to people in their network, who, not surprisingly, are more white men. We need to change the system. This change isn’t fast or easy, but here are some ideas to help you begin right now:

  • Conduct an assessment of your board across all spectrums of diversity, e.g. ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, age, background; then set goals.

  • Attend a networking session with a group outside of your traditional set of connections, e.g. the African American Chamber of Commerce, Women Entrepreneurs, the LGBT Young Professionals.

  • Offer to host one of these groups at your aquarium or zoo for their monthly meeting.

  • Look for opportunities to speak, and more importantly to listen, to groups across different communities, e.g. chambers, church groups, neighborhood associations. Get into the community and let people know about your organization and learn more about them and their perceptions and expectations.

We’ll continue this conversation to explore ways to address this important challenge over the next several months. In the meantime, check out these resources and articles: