Q:  I recently attended the BoardSource Leadership Forum in Seattle. There was a big emphasis on diversity and racial equity. Apparently, the makeup of boards nationally is still primarily white (84%), despite years-long efforts of funders to insist that it be reflective of the community. Over time, our board has tried to bring on people of color, but we haven’t been very successful. If we can even identify individuals, and they say yes, they rarely stay. The speakers at the leadership forum convinced me that our board should try harder, but honestly, I don’t see how our future efforts will be any more successful than our past. I’m sure other boards are facing the same challenge. Any ideas for us?


A: I was in Seattle as well, where BoardSource released its 2017 National Index of Nonprofit Board PracticesLeading with Intent. Besides the statistic you quoted, the survey of 1700 sector leaders revealed 90% of board chairs and 90% of chief executive officers are white as well. Sadly, these numbers haven’t changed much since 1987 when Candace Widmer studied the issue.

While the backlash in this country right now around race and political correctness may make the target even harder to hit, I believe that your organization will be richly rewarded if it achieves its goal. I see three steps to that goal, with an infinite number of techniques you can employ. Given the magnitude of the challenge, I’m going to break my answer into two columns. Today’s will cover the subjects of unifying the board around the need for diversity and identifying persons of color that will be appropriate for your board. January’s column will focus on inclusion, so that you don’t lose directors as fast as you induct them.

As I indicated above, step one is collectively realizing the value racial and ethnic diversity adds to your board, your organization and your community. (Clearly there are many types of diversity that are also advantageous, but I’m directing my response to your specific question.) The literature touting the benefits of diversity goes back more than 60 years. Presenting a few relevant studies to the board might serve as a jumping off point. For a cheat sheet, Elizabeth Mannix and Margaret Neale summarized a lot of this research in an article, “What Differences Make a Difference? The Promise and Reality of Diverse Teams in Organizations” (2005. American Psychological Society, 6[2]). There’s also the study by Kissane and Gingerich, “Do You See What I See?” (Summer 2004. Nonprofit Quarterly). It demonstrated that community members typically identify different needs and priorities than those within the organization, raising the question whether an organization can be effective if it doesn’t bring in voices from the community served.

But, I think the most constructive activity would be to devote a board meeting to a discussion around the pros and cons of bringing more diversity onto the board. Give people permission to express their discomfort with it anonymously by breaking the board into random groups and assigning each to argue one of the sides. Discuss what it would take to turn the negatives into positives.

Spend additional time talking about the assumptions behind the arguments. For instance, one “con” I often hear is that persons of color can’t meet the financial obligations of the board. Really??? There are wealthy African Americans, Hispanics, Asians and Native Americans. But even if a potential board director can’t make a substantial gift personally, might s/he make a personally meaningful gift and raise the rest? Can a person’s other talents make up for an inability to put an arbitrary dollar amount down on the table? (This discussion is relevant for potential directors that are white, too!)

Ruth McCambridge, the editor of The Nonprofit Quarterly, proffers a question that I think is worthy of discussion as well: What (of what we feel is essential to our mission) can’t we accomplish without ‘others’?

Assuming you have achieved shared recognition of the value of diversity, if not outright buy-in, it’s time to identify persons of color that might be right for your board. What not to do is to ask the one person of color you know from your office or church to join your board. Start instead with your intentional recruitment plan. If you don’t have one, stop everything else you’re doing and devote serious time and energy into creating one. NOW! Based on your goals over the next few years, what types of skills, experience, and characteristics do you need? What types of people are likely to possess those? Where – in what types of jobs – are you most likely to find these people?

Before going out into the broad community, look at those who are already tied to your organization. Who among your consumers, direct-service volunteers, committee members and donors fit the profiles you’ve created? Board service is likely to be an easy sell for these individuals because they’ve already demonstrated an interest in your mission.

Then, go back to your recruitment plan. Look at the sampling of jobs you’ve identified as requiring the same skills, experiences and characteristics you seek. Do you know anyone who works in those positions? Call those individuals, lay out your needs, including your desire for diversity, and ask these friends, acquaintances or colleagues who you should speak with. You don’t have a link? No problem. I once found a fabulous board director for an arts group that was interested in being a critical player in the revitalization of an urban area that had seen better days. I made a cold call to a local school of architecture and public planning and spoke with the department chair. He referred me to a young Hispanic woman in his department who did performance art when she wasn’t teaching city planning and architecture.

This process takes time as each person you speak with guides you to others. But, with a little perseverance, you’ll meet people that have the skills, experience and characteristics you are searching for – including racial and ethnic diversity. If one or more of these people can’t serve on the board this year, be sure to keep in contact. Next year may be different.