7 things you can do to improve the sad, pathetic state of board diversity


[Image description: An adorable but sad or tired chihuahua puppy lying on the floor staring into space. It’s brown with tan splotches on its face and paw. It’s probably sad because it read the new BoardSource report of board diversity. Image obtained from Pixabay.com]

Hi everyone. Apologies in advance for the grumpiness of this post. In addition to Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Jose, every week brings some sort of fresh horror from this administration. The president’s decision to end DACA is the latest injustice we as a sector and as a society must add to our growing list of injustices to fight. 800,000 Dreamers (who had no choice in being brought into this country) are in limbo, not to mention the lives of millions of their families. Please read this article written by a Dreamer and call your elected officials. The voices of people in support of ending DACA are loud, so we must be louder.

Meanwhile, we have some other challenges in the sector we have to deal with. BoardSource just released its report on board diversity, and the statistics are frustrating, disappointing, and somewhat anger-inducing (like this season’s Game of Thrones—seriously, Arya and Sansa?!) Here are a few highlights from the survey of 1378 nonprofit executives and 381 board chairs, though I highly recommend you read the full report.

  • 27% of all orgs that responded have zero people of color on their board.
  • 65% of Executives and 41% of board chairs report that they are dissatisfied with their board’s racial and ethnic diversity
  • Things haven’t changed in over two decades. According to BoardSource, “Past BoardSource studies found that boards were 86 percent white in 1994, 91 percent white in 2004, 86 percent white in 2007, 84 percent white in 2010, and 82 percent white in 2012.” In 2015 it was 89%; 2016, 84%.” (We’ll talk about the equally dismal ED/CEO diversity another time). 
  • 79% of EDs/CEOs say that expanding racial and ethnic diversity is important or very important to advancing mission.

HOWEVER, despite these mostly-horrifying numbers, there are still even more horrifying numbers:

  • Only 24% of executives and 25% of board chairs say demographics are a high priority for board recruitment.
  • Only 21% of executives and 23% of chairs report “change or strengthen recruitment practices,” when asked what they needed to do to improve their boards. Among all-white boards, only 21% of executives indicated it as a top-three priority.
  • About 25% of respondents indicate that they are somewhat or extremely dissatisfied with their board’s racial or ethnic diversity while simultaneously indicating that demographics is not a high priority in board recruitment. Which is ridiculous and incomprehensible, like the mission beyond the Wall on this season’s Game of Thrones.

OK, we need to have a serious talk. The lack of diversity on boards is no longer just annoying. It is a critical issue. Because I am grumpy, let me put it this way: If your board is not representative of the community you claim to serve, then you are furthering the injustice you seek to fight.

This goes for foundations too.

I know it sounds harsh. Your board members have good intentions. They care about equity and social justice. But good intentions are not enough. Whether we like it or not, nonprofit and foundation boards wield a tremendous amount of influence on this work. And whether we intend to or not, the lack of board diversity trickles down and has some wide-ranging consequences:

  • Because of the self-reinforcing cycle, mostly-white boards are likelier to hire white 

    [Image description: A chart of the self-reinforcing cycle causing majority white staff. Majority white staff leads to recruitment via staff networks leads to homogenous applicant pool leads to implicit biases elevating white applicants leads to interview biases benefiting white candidates leads to majority white staff, etc. Image obtained from Community Wealth Partners

    EDs/CEOs, who then are likelier to hire white staff, so now there’s lack of staff diversity in the sector as well.
  • Mostly-white boards of foundations are likelier to fund organizations that are also mostly white, furthering a system where the communities most affected by injustice get the least resources to address it.
  • Mostly-white boards and staff of nonprofits and foundations are likelier to ignore the people most affected by injustice and implement ineffective strategies based on second-hand knowledge
  • Mostly-white boards of foundations and nonprofits that serve marginalized communities are likelier to perpetuate a white savior complex, an insidious dynamic that prevents true social justice from being realized.

As I said, I don’t doubt anyone’s intention. Few of us are doing these above things on purpose; a lot of these challenges are due to implicit biases or other factors. Our sector is full of good people trying to do good for our communities. But having a board with zero people of color trying to serve a community with lots of people of color is like:

  • Having a bunch of really sensitive dudes, and no women, work on women’s health issues: “We have sisters and mothers, whom we love, so we have an understanding of what’s best for women.”
  • Having a dozen people who have never been in the ocean open a surfing school: “We saw a lot of Baywatch growing up, and it seems all you need is a board and some red clothing.”
  • Having a group of lifelong vegans plan the annual pig roast: “How about we create a 200-pound loaf of seitan, and shape it into a pig?”

Except for the last example—a 200-pound seitan-pig roast would be amazing and is now #19 on my bucket list!—these scenarios are bizarre or offensive or both. And yet, it seems perfectly fine for us to have mainly-white foundation and nonprofit boards in a sector focused on addressing systemic injustice, which disproportionately affects people of color. How is that OK? How are we OK with the fact that in over two decades—as our communities greatly diversify—our boards are still vastly white?

800,000 children are at risk of being deported from the only country they have ever known, white supremacy and Nazism are on the rise, and fear and violence are now the daily reality for many communities. The nonprofit sector cannot effectively address these and other challenges if we don’t do something about our pathetic sector-wide diversity problem.

So, you may be thinking, “Well, what’s the solution then?” Here’s the thing: We can’t solve this and other diversity challenges unless we understand that diversity is an adaptive problem, not a technical one. So if you’re hoping there’s a list of seven simple things we all need to do to be more diverse—“Tip 5: Have better food at your board meetings. Cheese and veggie platters at 6pm is culturally insensitive”—you’re going to be disappointed. This is a problem that requires us all to look at history, philosophies, cultural dynamics, etc., within our orgs and within society in general.

Still, just because it’s a complex problem, doesn’t mean we can’t all start taking actions immediately. Here are few suggestions I came up with for what each of our organizations must do. BoardSource has other great advice too. Discuss this issue with your board. We all need to do better. Seriously. Let’s all stop whining about the lack of board diversity and start doing stuff differently.

Analyze your board demographics and whether your board is demographically representative of the community you serve. If you’re serving a majority-Latino community, is at least half your board members Latinos? I know this issue is complicated. Some communities are mainly white, and so clients are mainly white, so boards are mainly white, and it’s unrealistic to ask these boards to greatly diversify. But if your community is significantly of color, but your clients are mostly white and so board members are mostly white, then you’re going to have to do a lot of thinking about whether you are achieving your mission. We also need to talk about disability, LGBTQ, age, gender, and other identities. 

Train your board on race, diversity, and implicit biases: We can’t talk about these challenges in the sector when our board members and staff are not on the same level regarding concepts and terminologies. Every nonprofit board and staff need to attend these trainings so we all at least have common language and concepts to discuss these issues, before we are even able to address all the damage we may possibly be causing without even realizing it due to our unconscious biases. These trainings and conversations need to be ongoing. Build them into your board calendar/workplan.

Get over color-blindness and prioritize demographics. The fact that nonprofit leaders indicate that diversity is good, admit their own diversity level sucks, and yet refuse to prioritize diversity in recruitment is indicative of this color-blind mentality. As was discussed in an earlier post, color-blindness is a form of racism. Yet too many board members haven’t had this conversation. And so it manifests as “We don’t care about our board candidates’ race or ethnicity, just what skills and qualifications they bring to the board.” That’s like saying, “We don’t care what gender you identify as; we only consider your skills when working on our mission of improving women’s health.” You will not have a diverse board until you get over color-blindness and prioritize diversity in recruitment.

Reduce the influence of money in determining who is on your board: This will be a separate post for later, but the influence of money in the nonprofit sector has grown too large. Look, I get it. I’m an ED, and this is the sallow, haunted face of a nonprofit director constantly freaking out about funding. But many boards and executives now consciously or unconsciously home in on whether a board candidate has money, connections to money, or fundraising skills when recruiting board members as the number one criterion. The connection to the larger community, to the community being served, plays a secondary role. This leaves out many diverse candidates, because there is still a huge racial wealth gap. And those with fundraising skills and experience are still overwhelmingly white.

Understand and change your board culture: As I mentioned earlier in “Why we need to stop asking ‘What do you do?’” “[We] wonder why our boards are not diverse. Maybe it’s because many people from diverse communities come from a To-Be culture, where relationships are the most important part, and actions do not happen until connections are strong. If we don’t understand this, we will likely continue struggling to get diverse candidates on our boards.” Read that article and have the conversation with your board about whether your board practices—Robert’s rules, strict agendas, no time for relationship-building, ubiquitous cheese and veggie platters—are driving candidates away.

Make sure your next three board members are diverse: If you are serious about diversity, put a moratorium on bringing on the board people from demographics that you have plenty of already. Just commit to not accept the next few candidates unless they are from the diverse demographic you seek. “But…Eddie has connections to potential donors!” Put him on the development committee. It’s also important you bring in a group of diverse people because it sucks for someone to be the only diverse member on a board. You feel isolated and tokenized. Believe, I’ve been there, and it’s horrible, no matter how well-meaning the rest of the board is.

And if you’re from an overrepresented demographic, maybe DON’T JOIN A BOARD: We keep talking about bringing on diverse board members and not enough about the spaces that are constantly taken up by board members who shouldn’t be there. Assess your role. Of course, there are always exceptions, but if you’re white, and a nonprofit’s board is 80% white, you may not be needed, no matter how much you love the mission, and how much they love you. You may be taking up space that should go to another person. If you’re a dude, and the board is mainly dudes, maybe don’t join this board. If you don’t identify as a person with a disability, and the board of a disability organization you want to join does not have people with disabilities, maybe don’t join. And so on. You can still be involved. Give the organization money. Volunteer. Be honest about why you decided not to join; let them know you’d love to join later when they are more representative of the community they are serving.

I’m sure there are other things we all need to do to. Write your suggestions and thoughts in the comment section. We all need to do better on this. The board structure, for all its challenges and weaknesses, is the governance system we currently have, and board members have a lot of influence on the entire sector, and thus on the communities we serve. Board diversity is no longer a nice-to-have; it determines whether we advance in our fight against injustice, or whether we inadvertently perpetuate that same injustice.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some seitan sculpting to do. 

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15 thoughts on “7 things you can do to improve the sad, pathetic state of board diversity

  1. Rick J Fritzemeier

    Interesting thoughts and tips, thanks.

    Ummm, but back to your opening salvo comparing President Trump’s decision that he wouldn’t renew DACA because it was unconstitutional to three major hurricanes…wow!

    Understand, perhaps, the reason DACA is in jeopardy is because the Democrats didn’t codify something like it when they had the chance, despite Ted Kennedy and John McCain’s major attempts to do so. Seems a senator from Calif., a well known senator from New York, and an up and coming junior senator from Illinois, didn’t want a Republican president to get credit for signing such a bill into law. So they killed it by putting a 5 year death notice attached. Hmmm, politics, nasty game.

    Trump, oh my goodness, sigh, gag, whatever. But try to at least brand, crucify, slander, make fun of him, accurately. Not that hard.

  2. verucaamish

    I would make an addition to diversifying a board – if your organization does not focus on a particular demographic – diversify your board. Let’s say your organization is issue based – Cycling, serving people with cancer, rescuing pets. If you do not have a critical mass of POC on the board and staff, you may be perpetuating white supremacy. You may not know that all your adoption fairs are in predominantly white neighborhoods. You may not know that your support group meetings use language that is racist, misogynist, ableist and heterosexist.

  3. Rhiannon Orizaga

    From “About 25% of respondents indicate that they are somewhat or extremely dissatisfied with their board’s racial or ethnic diversity while simultaneously indicating that demographics is not a high priority in board recruitment” to “Let’s all stop whining about the lack of board diversity and start doing stuff differently”: YASSS, King.

    Also I haven’t watched GOT yet so please no spoilers! Now I’m going to be biting my fingernails wondering what’s going on with Arya.

    1. Rhiannon Orizaga

      Also need to add: one cool thing I have seen in a board meeting is having a copy of the Robert’s Rules book available to new people so they can learn it, instead of feeling ignorant or left out of the group’s established practices.

  4. GRoseH

    Can anyone share their experiences with consciously reducing the importance of board members with deep pockets? This is exactly the issue that is getting in the way of my org talking about board diversity, even as we embark on a racial equity self-assessment and embed EDI issues in our other strategic planning initiatives. Grant funding for the work we do has become harder and harder to come by and we haven’t been able to fill that gap effectively, so in the past few years have worked hard to increase board giving and board fundraising. We serve youth but not in a specific community (about 30% youth of color) in environmental education (which is a whole other issue in terms of lack of diversity).

    1. Gregory Ley

      I would love to hear thoughts on this too. My organization is very similar in what we do (environmental ed, range of communities around the country but also local).

  5. Elizabeth Burpee

    Love this post and am sharing it with my ED and a bunch of our colleagues (including Board!) Thank you, Vu! Wondering what you or other folks have to say about making boards more diverse in terms of race AND socioeconomic status, particularly bringing on people of color from poor or working class backgrounds if the org works on issues specific to the intersection of race and poverty. I can already see some boards saying they’re diverse in terms of race where the people of color in the room don’t share a class background with people the organization purports to serve. (Of course a bunch of different intersections could fall in here, too). I feel like our sector is getting a little better at talking about race, but we’re still pretty mum bringing class into those discussions, and I think that combo brings up more resistance from organizational leaders for different reasons, i.e. double whammy of stereotypes and unfamiliarity.

  6. Adam Stewart

    Great post!

    In my opinion, if a board is serious about diversifying its membership, it should include that in its bylaws and nominations policy. For example, I’m on the board of an organization that states “No more than half of the members of the Board will be representative of one gender identity. The ED will be included in this ratio as the ED’s presence is required at all Board meetings. Five of eleven directors will be Aboriginal and/or People of Colour to ensure that the Board represents the racial diversity of the community.”

  7. Patrick de Freitas

    Can we please nuke the idea that Robert’s Rules are a Good Thing? They aren’t. They perpetuate a militaristic, overly-rigid, overly-complex, outdated approach to meetings. We talk about Robert’s Rules as if there were half a dozen. Not so. The rules are 600+ pages, enough to drown all but the most linear nerd. Madness — and liable to alienate many. Instead, please consider the much more cooperative Modern Rules of Order. The essence of Modern Rules is covered in two pages (vs. that 600) and makes perfect sense in the way that collaborative work makes sense. From my experience, when / if you adopt the Modern Rules, you’ll discover that it’s males that have the hardest time adapting. That alone might be good for the board~

  8. Saba

    There isn’t enough cultural conversation about the influence of money to gain access to a board seat. Many POC, like myself, are in positions where we are supporting our immigrant parents who don’t have 401Ks, are low to moderate income, and are aging. One of the reasons why South Asian parents encourage their children to become doctors or engineers is because it’s an investment in the child’s financial security as well as the parents’ retirement plan. If one chooses the path of nonprofits or the public sector, this responsibility and expectation doesn’t disappear. And so, many people can’t access the leadership roles and career mobility that come along with a board position since many of the boards that require high give/gets are not flexible on their barriers to entry for the sake of racial equity. Or, perhaps they’re not aware. Folks on the board I joined were not aware of this until I explained to them the situation that many kids of immigrants face, they were quite understanding once I initiated a conversation about it. I think many POC are in the same boat – there’s less generational wealth/assets and financial burdens shift to younger people.

  9. Kebo Drew

    My number 1: stop acting as if “diversity” and “skills” were diametrically opposed. It is possible to have an entirely POC, not to mention LGBTQ POC, Board with doctors, lawyers/attorneys, accountants/finance/bank vice presidents, teachers/educators, nonprofit professionals, mental health providers, health care workers, etc. that are also immigrants, disabled, youth, elders, formerly incarcerated, parents & grandmothers, etc. who also have access to large networks that they can tap into for grassroots fundraising.

    Seriously, I was on one Board that actually posed this as a real question “well, we really want people to have skills, and we want diversity,” then they removed the section of their bylaws that stated that their Board be representative of their community, because according to one white guy, “that can be taken care of with a diversity statement.” Also, I was told in this same LGB (the T and Q were an afterthought) that it needed to cater to cisgay white men because “they had all the money.” So this went backwards instead of forwards, and the organization is less and less relevant, and their staff and Board are are more and more white as time goes on. Needless to say, I did not find any joy serving on that Board.

  10. Jay

    [posted on FB page] Ive spent 12 years in the non-profit sector and this is spot on. Only recently have some orgs started to recognize how the lack of the diversity at the board level is impacting their mission. And frankly alot of that recent recognition is tied to funding. meanwhile POC like myself who are from & live in the communities that these institutions are trying to serve roll our collective eyes. Personally I’m sick of the tokenism thing. I’m much more interested in investing my personal time with community orgs that are run by people from my community that exist to serve my community. I serve on 2 boards here in East New York Brooklyn. They are both small but we get work done and it feels good to be in an all black space free of white savoirism and tokenism. I was tired of having the burden of diversity put on me. So I decided to shift my focus to serving from the inside my community instead of from the outside at a predominantly white institutions. There are trade offs but so far im very happy with my decision. So folks wanna know where all the potiental black board members are? They are members of home owners associations, Historically Black Fraternities & sororities, HBCU alumni groups, Prince Hall Masons, community orgs, Block associations, church groups and mentor groups. And they are busy getting sh*t done in their own communities (rant over)

  11. RW

    I was on the board of my local YWCA chapter and the rules stated that a certain percentage needed to be women, and women of color. Beyond that (and this is how I was able to even be a board member) the amount you needed to fund-raise was fairly obtainable, and could be either a donation OR an ask. So, if you knew someone who would donate or have a job that matches it made it even easier. The focus really was on getting people who could lift up the organization rather than big donors.

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