How can our board become more diverse?

Boards that become too insular, either by electing the same people to leadership positions or by selecting new members in their same mold, can easily miss opportunities to strengthen the organization by introducing fresh perspectives and diverse voices. In addition, donors and the community at large will look at your board as a reflection of the entire organization. If they perceive that you are stuck in a rut or out of touch with what’s happening in the wider world, they are more likely to lend their support elsewhere.

Diversity encompasses many elements: age, gender, ethnicity, geographic location, occupation, professional affiliation, skills set, and so forth. For a suburban-based nonprofit, for instance, diversity might mean board members from urban or rural areas. A board governing a nonprofit dedicated to young women’s issues might seek to diversify by recruiting men and older women.

Reducing a board’s homogeneity opens it to a variety of viewpoints and avenues of action. People from different backgrounds, who have had different experiences, will add a richness to the board’s discussions, often raising points that other members would never have thought about. Of course, once a board has spoken with one voice on policy, those holding contrary opinions must be loyal to the majority.

One caution: a board should beware of tokenism having, for example, “the young member” or “the Asian member” or “the member from the inner city.” This type of approach does not reflect a serious attempt to diversify the board’s composition and does a disservice to the people who were recruited to bring a fresh, personal perspective to board discussions and decisions. It is unfair and dangerous to expect one person to be the “representative” of a specific population. No one person can or should reflect the viewpoints of an entire group.

To encourage more diversity within its ranks, a board should

Emphasize to the governance committee the importance of finding candidates who would bring a broader variety of experience and views to the board. They may be found among constituent groups, on boards of other organizations, or within subgroups of the membership or donor base.

Provide the governance committee with the names of people you believe would bring needed expertise or diversity (gender, age, ethnic, or geographic) to the board.

Actively solicit different points of view during board discussions, led by a chair who welcomes a broad spectrum of ideas and perspectives. No one should feel penalized for voicing what might be an unpopular view.

To build more diverse networks and relationships that could yield future board members, invite nonboard members to sit on advisory councils or certain board committees.

Hold joint meetings with leaders from groups that have traditionally been underrepresented on the board.

SUQQESTED ACTION STEPS

1. Board members, have an open discussion about how well the board reflects the diversity of its constituencies.

2. Board members, develop a list of desired qualifications for board membership, including the need for people of different ages, genders, religious beliefs, races, professional experiences, and so forth .

3. Board members, strategize about how best to identify and recruit people who will bring new perspectives to the governance process.