Last month I received the following question:

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?

I responded with techniques for ensuring the board was in agreement about the desirability of racial and ethnic diversity and for identifying the “right” pool of diverse individuals to ask to join. (Click here to read the column if you missed it.) I promised to deal this month with methods for increasing the odds that these individuals remain on the board once they join.


A: As you confess, getting persons of color to join your board isn’t as difficult as getting them to stick around. Of course, there are people who leave for the same reasons as many of your white directors – their family or work situation changes and they no longer have the time, or they move. But, do exit interviews with those heading out through the revolving door and you’ll probably find the individuals did not feel a real part of the board, that they felt invisible or patronized. That’s why most of the diversity literature today stresses the importance of inclusion.

What can you do to make persons of color feel more included? The first step may be to examine what you are doing that can chase people away. Do you expect a 50’ish Asian female banker to speak for the teenage Asian gang members your nonprofit is working with? How could she, really? Do you bring on a single Latino and feel you’ve met your obligation to diversity? Do you resent or poo-poo it when he makes comments about feeling like a “token”? Or, do you make an assumption that the new African American woman who asks a question is not capable of understanding the issues, yet attribute a similar question posited by the new white woman to her limited tenure on the board? It may be difficult to even see these realities, let alone confront them. But it’s important to acknowledge that they and other such (generally subconscious) behaviors exist. Incorporate diversity into the organization’s values, and frequently recommit as a board to diversity.

Redouble your efforts to recruit persons of color, and bring on enough of these folks that no one has to feel alone on the board. Orient everyone to the norms of the board, so all are approaching their board service from a similar place. Create regular opportunities for all directors to break bread and network together. (When breaking bread, don’t forget to offer food that those from other cultures will enjoy sharing!) We all know that people do for other people. This means that your directors have to know their colleagues well enough to care. Give everyone the chance to learn much more about their teammates than name, rank and serial number, perhaps through the routine use of ice-breaker activities. Match new directors with a mentor who can help them navigate the standards of the board.

When someone goes against the norms of the board, act quickly and decisively. Let people know it’s not okay, for instance, to make a racist joke or use politically incorrect language.  Define consequences for such behavior and carry through if necessary.

Provide opportunities for engagement. Ask directors what they feel they bring to the table and what they want to accomplish during their tenure. Then, on a consistent basis, urge them to contribute their personal skills, knowledge, and expertise – e.g., what they know about risk management, investments, financial statements, human resources, the community, mission or even meeting dynamics – to board discussions and committee undertakings. Your diverse members have much more to offer than a perspective on race! Welcome their challenges to the status quo. This is easier if you will remind yourself that people base their suggestions on reasoning that, at least in their mind, is valid. And, task someone at each meeting to question assumptions that may arise around race, ethnicity and expectations.

Another key to inclusion is ensuring that persons of color are put on the leadership track. Provide them with opportunities to chair committees, meet with the CEO, other staff, and clients as appropriate, speak on behalf of the organization, go to conferences, and take on officer roles.

Check back a couple times a year to make sure that everyone feels that they are benefiting from their board experience. If someone does opt to leave the organization, conduct an exit interview to learn what can be done better in the future.

Sound like suggestions that are appropriate for all board directors, not just those of color? That’s the idea!