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Five Practical Steps to Diversify your Board of Directors

By JoAnn Yoshimoto, Senior Consultant

Before we plunge into the practical “how-to” ideas, let’s consider a few often-ignored questions: Why are we even having this conversation? Why does board diversity matter? Some of the answers might be philosophical, ethical, equity- or values-based, others might be quantifiable, statistical, evidence-based, but every nonprofit organization must find its own answers to these questions.

Why Does Board Diversity Matter?

Consider the following range of possible responses to this question:

Leaders of color can introduce fresh perspectives and lived experiences that enrich programming, broaden the organization’s reach, and engage new networks that reflect and inform its mission.
Leaders of color can contribute heft and credibility, deepen and broaden understanding of community dynamics, and rekindle a sense of urgency.
Board diversity influences the relevance and effectiveness of decision making and programming.
A board that is homogeneous risks having narrow perspectives that may inadvertently result in strategies and plans that are ineffective or even reinforce societal challenges and inequities.
When only 21% of executive directors and board chairs are people of color, this jeopardizes the nonprofit sector’s effectiveness and relevance to the communities it intends to serve.

All statistics are pulled from the Urban Institute. If you’re interested in taking a deeper dive into this data, take a look at this article.

Another thought leader, Boardsource, offers interesting conclusions in its 2021 report Leading with Intent: Reviewing the State of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion on Nonprofit Boards.

According to the Boardsource report:

Boards may be getting more diverse, but they are far from representing the communities they serve.
Board recruitment practices are not aligned with diversity goals.
Boards that include people of color are more likely to have adopted DEI practices than boards that do not include people of color.
In a 2019 survey, a minority of executives and board chairs (38% and 29%, respectively) felt that their boards represented the communities they serve (In other words, a majority of executives and board chairs do not feel that their boards represent the communities they serve).

One irrefutable conclusion is that there is much work to be done!

The focus of this blog is to provide practical steps for increasing the diversity of your board of directors. You’re certainly not alone if you’ve ever felt that you’d like to increase board diversity but don’t know how/where to start.

The Five Practical Steps

#1 Prepare and Plan

Preceding the launch of any major new initiative, it is always best practice to prepare and plan. Articulate your DEI mission and vision; build consensus with your board and staff leadership; be sure to look both inward and outward.

Open a DEI conversation among the board of directors.

Develop a DEI mission statement and put it in writing. Remember that it can be adapted/edited as your DEI journey progresses. This mission statement will serve as a guiding light as you embark on your work.
Institutionalize/weave DEI into policies, procedures and action plans. This can be as simple as including the DEI mission statement in board recruitment materials, or as complex as revising the organization’s bylaws, strategic plan, job descriptions, etc. to include DEI statements and positions.
Offer diversity training to board members (and staff). Many civic organizations, such as United Way offer a variety of trainings at a range of different price points.
Identify short-term (annual) and medium-range (2-3 year) action steps, including SMARTIE goals for board recruitment.

#2 Assess the Current Board State

As you develop measurable goals, it’s necessary to take stock of where you are as compared to where you would like to be. Define and quantify existing variables by conducting a board self-assessment relative to DEI. See sample Board matrix.

Conduct a board self-assessment relative to DEI. Take inventory of your board members’ existing skills, networks and gender/racial/age/geographic diversity.
Identify gaps to fill and priority characteristics to seek in Board candidates.
Identify existing or potential barriers to participation by diverse communities. Oftentimes, “give/get” requirements are well-intentioned but present a barrier to participation. Consider broadening measurable units of participation to make it more meaningful, representative and accessible.
Remember to affirm the value of current board members while working together to establish aspirational goals to diversify board membership. In other words, take care not to make current board members feel unappreciated or superfluous as you seek new members who represent diverse communities.

#3 Modify or Expand the Board Recruitment Process

If your board recruitment process is working well and you are already increasing the diversity of your board makeup, congratulations! If not, consider this opportunity to modify or expand the board recruitment process.

Review and address existing or potential barriers as identified in Step #2. Again, consider a broad range of measurable ways that board members can contribute to the organization. For example, look beyond the expectation that every board member recruit one or more tables to the annual gala at, say, $150 per head. Consider adding the recruitment of volunteers to assist with outreach efforts, speaking about your organization to various community groups that reach broader audiences, etc. as valued and measurable activities for board members.
It’s always a best practice to identify a nominating committee to assume responsibility for the board recruitment process. Otherwise, if “everyone” is equally responsible, there is a risk that no single individual or group will truly assume this responsibility and the effort may flounder.
Develop a recruitment process and put it in writing. At the same time, create a board member job description if one doesn’t already exist. Incorporate DEI into the process. This can be as simple as indicating that one of the desired characteristics of board members is experience and familiarity with diverse communities.

#4 Identify Prospective Candidates and Reach Out

While the nominating committee may carry the responsibility for identifying prospective board members, it can be meaningful and productive for the entire board to devote a portion of a board meeting to working together to identify prospective candidates and assign individuals to reach out. This would be an onerous task if assigned to only one person. As a shared responsibility among current board members, and with a clear strategy, it becomes manageable. Here are some possible small steps:

Brainstorm 1st-degree contacts (personally known to you) among individuals who possess identified skills and characteristics; consider various ways in which candidates may add diversity.
Compile a list of community leaders who represent underrepresented communities. Be sure to look inward as well as outward. For example, there may be diverse community leaders who are known to your program or administrative staff. Perhaps there are candidates who have utilized your services or served in a volunteer capacity. Remember that prominent leaders from diverse communities are most likely in great demand, and possibly already committed to one or more boards. However, these identified leaders may know good candidates, so be sure to get together for a conversation!
Approach organizations that successfully engender/embrace DEI and train volunteers for community service. United Way comes to mind; there are undoubtedly other civic organizations in most metropolitan areas.

United Way of King County (Seattle area) has focused on just this issue for more than 29 years. Project LEAD (Leadership Effectiveness and Diversity) empowers people who identify as BIPOC to take the first step toward board leadership.
Many cities have civic development programs for nonprofit leaders, sometimes in conjunction with chambers of commerce. Many of these programs have a strong focus and commitment to DEI principles and a concerted focus on developing leaders who represent diverse communities. A few examples include Leadership Tomorrow (Seattle), Leadership Greater Chicago, Boston’s Future Leaders (BFL), etc.

Your outreach efforts might also include formalized search strategies, such as posting your board position on a nonprofit board job board like LinkedIn or tapping a board search firm.

#5 Implement Strong Orientation, Engagement and Evaluation Measures

Just as with fundraising, it’s important to nurture a long-term relationship in board member engagement. Take the time to develop and implement a process for new board member orientation, engagement and evaluation, bearing in mind that any relationship is a two-way street. Increasing diversity implies creating a degree of change, and individuals have a range of comfort with and tolerance for change. The evaluation process is a critically important step in the change management process, and it is valuable to evaluate the real and perceived change among board members, staff, volunteers and other stakeholders.

Tips and ideas:

Initially staff will take the lead in the communication and orientation process. Consider pairing new members with board cohorts or a board buddy. Take care to avoid pairings based on stereotypes or assumptions, such as newer BIPOC members paired with veteran BIPOC members. Rather, consider pairings based on professional background, geography, avocations, etc. Provide the veteran board member with a list of talking points and suggested activities, such as the following:
Break the ice and explore/discuss common areas of interest.
Describe board experience, norms, successes, challenges, etc.
Check in on a regular basis, perhaps monthly.
The process of board member engagement sometimes requires a combination of art and science:
Provide the full range of committee choices. Encourage participation based on subject-matter expertise and interest/experience with DEI.
As a rule, do not assign a new board member a leadership role. Instead, pair the new member with a veteran, with an eye toward grooming the new member for a future leadership role. An extreme example of a faux pas might be assigning a new, ethnically diverse board member as chair of a DEI Committee.
Evaluation can be as casual as a follow-up phone conversation, or as formal as a questionnaire. Try to ask open-ended questions in order to stimulate meaningful conversation. Some of the basic areas to explore include:
How’s it going? How would you describe your experience so far? Does the reality of board service match your expectations? Are there any areas for improvement?

You may have noticed that best practice is best practice in terms of new board member orientation, engagement and evaluation. It’s important to remember to avoid assumptions and potential pitfalls. However, fear of saying or doing the wrong thing can prevent an organization from moving forward. Some DEI trainers advise that it’s not a matter of “if” you say or do the wrong thing, it’s a question of “when” this happens. Take a look at this appropriately titled book by Vernā Myers. As DEI practices become institutionalized within your board development process, hopefully the fear and hesitancy will dissipate and it will soon seem that “we do it this way because it’s best practice.”

Even as your organization becomes familiar and comfortable with advancing diversity, equity and inclusion, it is important to acknowledge that an “end point” does not exist. This work is continuous and ongoing, and the focus of these efforts, how we approach the work and the intended outcomes of DEI in the fundraising arena will continue to evolve and deepen in the future, in the same way they have over the past 30+ years. Our collective efforts must endure as we work together to create a more perfect fundraising profession, nonprofit community and world, reflective of the breadth and depth of us all.

I look forward to hearing about your successes and challenges in diversifying your board of directors. Please feel free to contact me at jyoshimoto@alford.com.

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