Q: All we seem to hear nowadays is the need for diversity on the board. We do want diversity, but we haven’t done a very good job of it in the past. Any suggestions for doing this right?

A:  Ah… the question of the decade. Obviously, there is no “right” – or “wrong” for that matter. However, there are some things that research has taught us that might help your board make better decisions for it.

A number of years ago funders started requesting that boards reflect the diversity of the communities they were serving. They were clear. They wanted to see racial and ethnic representation on what were frequently all-white boards. The logic was simple. If – taking an extreme example – a nonprofit served an under-educated, minimally-skilled population of predominantly Mexican Americans in a barrio community and the board was made up of primarily white suburban professionals, clients and others could question whether the board could possibly have a clue about the real issues faced by the clients. This could call into doubt the board’s ability to make the best decisions on the clients’ behalf. The board was more likely, the reasoning went, to make more appropriate decisions for clients if there were Mexican Americans on the board.

It soon became apparent, however, that attempts to diversify the boards through the process of merely bringing more non-whites onto boards weren’t working. Current (white) board members would ask people of color that they knew. These were typically people who went to school where they went to school, worked where they worked, lived in the communities they lived in and belonged to the same clubs they belonged to. Could, say, an ivy-league-educated Mexican American who grew up and is still living in an upscale community understand the needs of those in the barrio any better than his or her white colleagues?

Perhaps the problem was that boards weren’t reaching out sufficiently to find people that were more like their organizations’ constituents. However, even if the organizations were successful at finding individuals that could appreciate and articulate the clients’ needs, could the one, two, even three such board members effectively sway the others?Would the individual(s) feel at all comfortable speaking for a huge demographic? Would he/she/they find the experience rewarding enough to stay on the board?

The answer to all these questions is, evidently not. According to the Nonprofit Governance Index 2007, published by BoardSource, despite the attempt to attract more diversity to nonprofit boards, racial and ethnic representation on these boards is basically what it was more than a decade ago, with 86% of board members nationwide being white.Equally discouraging was the finding in the Urban Institute’s study, Nonprofit Governance in the United States: Findings on Performance and Accountability from the First National Representative Study (2007), that minority participation had either no impact or negative impact on board activities such as raising funds, setting policy, monitoring programs, influencing the community, planning for the future and financial oversight.

While I don’t want anyone to read this and say that racial and ethnic diversity is no longer a good goal – and, by the way, there are boards made up of primarily African Americans, Asians or Latinos that have also sought racial and ethnic diversity with equally mixed results – I think we must reconsider our thinking and our methodology if we wish our boards to be more in tune with our constituencies. Today, instead of diversity per se there is a push for culturally competent boards – boards that, according to the National Center for Cultural Competence:

  • Have a defined set of values and principles, and demonstrate behaviors, attitudes, policies and structures that enable them to work effectively cross-culturally.
  • Have the capacity to (1) value diversity, (2) conduct self-assessment, (3) manage the dynamics of difference, (4) acquire and institutionalize cultural knowledge and (5) adapt to diversity and the cultural contexts of the communities they serve.
  • Incorporate the above in all aspects of policymaking, administration, practice, service delivery and involve systematically consumers, key stakeholders and communities.

Now, there are probably some people who are saying to themselves that diversity does not have to be just about race and ethnicity. This is true. Diversity is also about gender, age, values, work style, emotional intelligence, geography, skills and more. We know, for instance, from the BoardSource study that women make up only 43% of boards nationwide while men make up 57%.And yet, the Urban Institute study found that gender diversity is positively associated with most of the activities we rely on our boards to perform. It seems we should definitely be focusing more on gender equity.

But it’s not that easy to go this route, either. Baby boomers make up almost half of board membership nation-wide. Those under 30 make up only 2% (BoardSource). The results of the Urban Institute study, which found that age has minimal impact on the effectiveness of how boards carry out their activities, would imply that seeking people of different ages is a burden we don’t need to take on. Yet, it’s hard to argue that we should stop seeking younger board members. If organizations are to have a future, they certainly need to groom younger people to step up.

There is still much we have yet to learn about the impact of diversity on our boards. Meanwhile, more than seeking specific “types” to fill board slots, we need to be better at determining our needs and finding people with the skill sets and characteristics to meet those needs, who also have the ability look at issues from different perspectives, who are culturally competent and who are not afraid to challenge the status quo.After  all, there is still truth to the adage, “If two people think the same way, one of them is unnecessary.”


An excellent article, again. I have recruited minority members to Boards but almost without exception, they were very rare individuals. Effective Board members need both discretionary income for gift giving and discretionary time for Board governance. Minority individual must work harder and longer to achieve equal status. “Ginger Rogers did the same moves as Fred Astaire, but she did it backwards and in heels.”

Another factor limiting Board membership is culture. Hispanics tend to give to folks from their country of origin. This is a generalization but trying to get Cubans to work with even 2nd and 3rd generation of Latin Americans flies in the face of diversity recruitment in my experience.

Perhaps a follow-up article could be the results of a survey of successful diversity recruitment techniques.

Keep up the good work!
Sam Tannenbaum


I read the board diversity piece with considerable interest, having focused on that for many years (going back to my IS years). I thought your article was very very very well written, and right on the money! Congrats! It deserves wide dissemination.

Brian E. Foss


Your message is awesome.

Cathy Bowers