Board Leadership: Want a Stronger, More Diverse Board? Start Here

Posted on by Laura Otten, Dodge Technical Assistance


Diversity on boards has long been a hot topic. While it has always been a best practice to have a board of directors that is reflective of your constituency, too few have lived up to that best practice.

In the last decade or so, however, more and more nonprofits have been paying attention — from serious to lip service — to diversify their boards, in part because there has been increased pressure coming from external sources, primarily funders.

But, creating a strong, diverse board is more challenging than it might at first appear.  Sometimes an organization’s failure to do so isn’t for lack of trying, but rather misguided efforts. Other times, there really hasn’t even been any trying. But when an organization tries and fails, it is due to several reasons.

  1. Too few boards have a solid, thoughtful on-boarding process, essential if an organization wants a strong, well-performing board, regardless of its diversity. Rather, most boards replace outgoing board members by asking those already on the board whom they know.  Sadly, in this country, people’s networks still tend to look like and think as they do.  If that is how a board “recruits” new board members, diversification will be a long time coming.
  2. Too few boards give careful, intentional thought to what diversity means for their board and how that diversity will be of benefit. If we don’t truly believe in something, if we don’t truly understand its benefits, we are far less likely to pursue that outcome with any degree of vigor.
  3. Too few boards think about the conditions necessary to be a welcoming culture to diversity.

To build a good, solid board that has the capacity to be a high performing board, the board — not the executive director — must begin by being strategic. The board, with input from the executive director, must identify what is needed on the board to help increase the chances that the board and organization will be successful in achieving its strategic priorities.

It must consider what is needed in terms of: demographics; skills and knowledge areas; those to whom they wish access, as the need arises, through board members; and what kinds of characteristics/personality traits will be necessary for the group and successful group dynamics.

Once all the needs are identified, a board must prioritize. By thinking of specifics — such as a younger female or someone from this region of our service area or someone who has access to a politician — board members will be forced to think beyond their smart phones and into particular places.

For example, every profession has at least one professional association, to which many in our local communities belong. Reaching out to the local chapter of a professional association with a request to find board members stretches a board well beyond its own spheres. Going to faith organizations in new communities to extend an invitation to consider board service reaches beyond current circles. With clear priorities identified for new board members, the process of finding new board members moves from “who do we know” to “where should we look.” That, in and of itself, may add diversity.

But achieving diversity is far more than adding those who look different from everyone else in the room.

Diversifying boards needs to be tied to something beyond the push to diversify. It must first and foremost come from a position of understanding what diversification will bring to the board and the organization. It must come from a place of knowing why this is important and not simply that it is important to do if we want to be funded.  Diversification looks different to different organizations.

For some, it may be diversifying along race and age, or sex and communities or any number of axis. But it all must be led by what is it we need to achieve in order to be the best stewards and protectors of our mission. Thus, diversifying a board should very much be driven by an organization’s mission.

While there is absolute important value in clients seeing themselves on the board of directors, it is equally important to understand what diversification will bring to the board table.

We think of diversity bringing a variety of perspectives to the table: those who are different, be it because they grew up in different neighborhoods, different financial situations or different generations, will bring different ways of thinking about a situation.  The more ways we have to consider a situation, the thinking goes, the more thorough we will be in our decision making. (This, of course, assumes that people listen and hear what others are saying, even if it is foreign or different than their own thinking.)

But some of the diversity that would be of value to a board is difference that we cannot see, such as a person’s political views or the way s/he approaches a new situation or how s/he deals with disagreement.

To be a successful diverse board, boards must, before they go looking for that diversity, be clear as to the goals of the diversity they seek. If we simply want to look diverse, the on-boarding process may be more superficial: we bring in candidates, interview them, make sure we “like” them, and bring them onto the board.

If we want our board to be diverse at a functional level — by which we mean in how the members think, discuss and make decisions — then the on-boarding process will be more involved and would necessitate greater opportunities for interaction and observation before extending an offer. It might even include some of the personality and problem solving tests favored by HR departments of many for-profit companies. And/or, it could become a requirement that a potential board member serve a year on a board committee before being eligible even to be considered for board service.

(Requiring time on a committee as a pre-requisite for board nomination is always a good strategy for helping to bring on only the good-to-great board members.)

Being clear as to why we want to be diverse should not only influence the on-boarding process, but also the degree of commitment to achieving the goal. When diversity is simply a public relations gesture as opposed to an understanding of the value of being a diverse group, neither board member selection nor achievement of the goal get the attention they need. Organizations that seek diversity simply to put a number larger than zero on a grant application, or to pat themselves on their backs that the board doesn’t all look alike, will fail to achieve true diversity, and the benefits thereof.

When boards have not reflected on the what and why of diversity, they also won’t be sure that they have a culture that is welcoming of diversity, even if they have to create it from scratch. A group that isn’t prepared to be diverse is a group that won’t even have a semblance of being diverse for very long.

First and foremost, to be successful as a diverse group, a board must be a group that is open to learning and change. By adding “different” you are almost guaranteed to have things questioned, the “way we have always done things” challenged, and alternatives viewpoints raised. If the knee jerk response is to quash these new ideas, dismiss them as “not how we do things,” diversity will quickly leave.

If, however, the group is a learning one, one that stops, listens, and considers and isn’t threatened by the possibility that there are alternative — and perhaps even better — ways to do things, the diversity will stay.

A culture that welcomes isn’t one that puts up a divide between the we who have been there and the you who are new; instead, it expands the we to include the you. Part of the way we do that is by never bringing on just one of whatever it is on which we seek to diversify.

One is a token, and a token is never a commitment to being a truly diverse group. One cannot and does not represent the whole, nor speak for the whole. One also increases the chances that the diversity will either a) never feel comfortable honestly speaking up or b) speak up, but very quickly shut down, if not in fact leave.

If true diversity is the goal, we must bring “newness” in groups, so that until the integrated we happens, the newness has a we of its own and its ideas and concerns are harder to dismiss.

We want to hear from you!

If you have a board diversity success story to share, we’d love to hear from you.

laura-head-shot-500Laura Otten, a Dodge Technical Assistance faculty member, is Executive Director at The Nonprofit Center at LaSalle University. 

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