With a population nearly 95 percent white, Maine ranks last in the nation for racial and ethnic diversity, so perhaps it’s no wonder that many nonprofit leaders regard diversifying their boards as the impossible dream. But is it? Maine’s non-white population rose 37 percent between 2000 and 2010, and recent immigration trends suggest the next census will reflect an even greater increase. Beyond non-white newcomers, moreover, are non-whites whose Maine roots extend most deeply of all: for example, Native citizens represent 4.5 percent of the population of Washington County. Resist the temptation, therefore, to despair the lack of color in your community and take a fresh look. Then apply some fresh thinking to the challenge of diversifying your board, using the following questions to guide a potentially transformative conversation.
Why diversify your board?
BoardSource, which sets the standard for excellence in nonprofit governance, summarizes the crucial importance of diversity in the following statement:
The individual leaders who compose nonprofit boards are a reflection of an organization’s values and beliefs about who should be empowered and entrusted with its most important decisions. We believe that all social sector organizations can better achieve their missions by drawing on the skills, talents, and perspectives of a broader and more diverse range of leaders, and that the diversity of viewpoints that comes from different life experiences and cultural backgrounds strengthens board deliberations and decision-making.
Your board needs to come to a shared understanding of why diversity is important to its work and your organization, and to articulate a commitment to the diversity of its ranks. Ideally you will be able to draft a statement that describes why diversity matters and the benefits you hope to achieve through a diverse board.
What does diversity mean in my community?
As referenced above, race and ethnicity are not the only measures of diversity, so don’t stop there in assessing the diversity of your community and your board. Consider age, gender, sexual orientation, educational attainment, economic status, authentic connection to those you serve, and you’ll likely find more opportunities to diversify than you might have thought possible in the whitest state in the Union. Look around your board table, and determine who’s missing. Does your board reflect the true breadth of your community or a narrow subset?
Expand your statement on diversity to include your vision of an appropriately diverse board and be specific!
How do I make our vision a reality?
Achieving lasting change takes time and diversifying your board is no different, but prioritizing your effort, developing a detailed plan of action, and regularly measuring your progress will go a long way.
- Recruitment efforts must be specifically targeted to reach and compel the individuals you hope to bring on board, and you may find that your traditional recruitment strategies fall short. Build deep pools of diverse candidates understanding that you will have to make many asks to secure the desired number of acceptances. Often you will have to build links to the communities from which you hope to recruit, and you need to be prepared to take the time and effort to develop new relationships.
- Your action plan for diversifying your board must go beyond recruiting to address how you will welcome, orient, engage, communicate, include in leadership, reduce barriers, and evaluate.
- There needs to be a process and some frank discussion about board culture and potential barriers to inclusion. The board should be able to address issues identified from answering the question, “What are we doing now in how we operate, how we meet, and how we work together that could be barriers to the kinds of individuals we want to attract and retain on our board?”
- Ensure that you are providing paths to leadership within your board that offer all board members the opportunity to build their skills and move into leadership positions. Diversity of board leadership is a sure sign of an authentic organizational culture of inclusivity.
- Once you establish clear goals for diversifying your board, track your progress. (You can’t manage what you don’t measure!) The Federal Housing Finance Agency recently reported on the impact of the formal and informal steps it had taken since 2015 to encourage board diversity at Federal Home Loan Banks, including adding board demographic data to annual reports and clarifying how to conduct outreach to diverse board candidates. In three years, the number of women directors increased by 29 percent and in just two years, the number of minority directors increased by a full third.
Achieving and maintaining diversity on your board is not a short-term, one-time event. It requires close attention and ongoing effort. And don’t lose sight of the fact that people of all stripes join boards for the same reason—because they care about the mission of the organization. So if you can remove the barriers to inclusion, and build a board culture that truly embraces diversity, then it comes down to doing the same thing you need to do with all board members: help them find meaningful engagement in the work of the organization, and give them the support and the tools they need to achieve success.
You’ll find other advice about board recruitment in the blog section of our Starboard website: www.starboardleadership.com. Or you can contact us now to request a conversation with a member of our consulting team. We look forward to hearing from you!