How to Recruit and Retain Diverse Board Members
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by Terri Broussard Williams, CGI
Many of us have done a lot of waking up this year. In the nonprofit world, that means taking a hard look at some numbers that are way out of line.
According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, at least 60% of all national nonprofits serve BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color). But, according to the 2017 report "Leading With Intent" from BoardSource, 84% of nonprofit board members identify as White. Furthermore, 20% of all organizations report that their boards have zero BIPOC members.
Especially in this year of reckoning around equality and diversity, I don't doubt that each board wants to do better. They want to lead with intent. They want more diversity. They want to do the work, but they don't know how.
As a Black social impact strategist, a member of numerous boards myself and the daughter and granddaughter of Black #Firestarters for whom volunteering was a way of life, I want to give you a game plan for change.
To shape this plan, I used my Firestarter Formula. You can read more about the Formula in my book "Find Your Fire." But, to sum it up, it's four simple things that I turn to no matter what I'm trying to accomplish — from achieving a personal goal to starting a movement. The Firestarter Formula translates to everything, including diversifying your board. And it's easy to remember. Each aspect starts with a C. So let's break it down
Cause: Identify Your 'Why'
The first C stands for Cause. Your Cause is your "big why." You have to know your Cause in order to bring more diverse people to your board.
To identify your Cause, ask yourself questions like this:
- Why did your nonprofit begin its work?
- Why do you want to create change within your community with your mission?
- How are you serving your community? Think about this in terms of aims and drivers. The aims are the big-picture goals. The drivers are what helps you do the work to reach those goals.
- Why do you want to have more diverse board members?
Your answers to these questions make you feel good, right? When you bring those feelings of inspiration, hope and energy to the people you want to see on your board, they're going to feel fired up, too. They will begin to understand why they need to be a part of the conversation you're having and why they should bring their knowledge to the board table.
To be as transparent as possible when you're having these conversations, share what you do well when it comes to achieving your mission and what you don't do as well. This helps make it clear to others the difference they can make.
Another part of this step is having listening sessions with your donors, your staff and your stakeholders. How does the community perceive your organization? Do others understand your Cause? You don't want to guess about this.
You'll also want to talk to your current board members. You need them as your allies and champions in increasing diversity. So it's essential to understand where they are with all of this.
After that, have conversations between the staff and the board about the definitions and the terms that you're using. One thing that I've really learned in doing this work is that people don't know what to say sometimes. Or they might be using different terms to talk about the same thing. So you can eliminate a lot of potential tension or disconnect just to get everyone on the same page.
Finally, you'll also want to really get into some training — especially implicit bias training. Everyone must understand their unconscious biases. This will allow you to diversify from a place of strength.
Collective: Create Understanding
The collective encompasses not just the people already at your board table, but also your stakeholders and beneficiaries, as well as the people in your community. You have to understand all of these groups in order to attract and retain BIPOC board members.
A really important step here is creating a board assessment. The assessment will help your new members understand how you operate as a board and how to generate and share ideas in a way that feels nonthreatening.
I can't explain to you how intimidating it can be for some to be a "first" at the board table and then feel like they cannot speak up. A board assessment will help them ease into the work and feel connection a lot faster. And that will allow you to retain them.
That board assessment will also help you understand where everyone is in life. Ask them questions about intent, about how they perceive your board and about the stages they are in their lives. Some of that might come out in the interview process, but it's really going to come out once they get to know you better.
I was once invited to be the youngest at a board table — and the only person of color that was a U.S. member. At the time, I had a 24/7 job. So while I was present at board meetings, I was also tied to my phone for work.
Think about how this could fuel misunderstanding and conflict: You might have a new BIPOC board member with a demanding job like I had. Because others don't understand where she is in her career, they might assume that she is disengaged. The new board member picks up on that and assumes she's being disrespected because she's a person of color. These aren't people who are going to work well together!
Another thing that you want to think about is understanding everyone's values at the table. This will unite you and allow you to show each other how you're not just talking; you're walking the walk each day and helping to build the space that is needed to have a board that's trustworthy.
You might even begin to build in recruitment tactics for that next wave of board members. So, for example, if you are a women's organization and you have volunteers that routinely come from a Black sorority or a Hispanic service organization, those are potential board members. They're also people that you'd want to introduce new board members to.
Communicate: Tell a Compelling Story
As you make changes, you'll want to tell others about them. People need to see and hear what's different. Share your stories so that everyone in your community can see the shifts. Those stories are a powerful tool. They'll encourage more people to not only want to join your board, but also offer other ways that you can be more diverse and inclusive.
The messages you send your new board members are also a key part of communication. You want them to understand that they're more than a potential new revenue stream or a connection to your next donor. Show them how they are helping you to fulfill the organization's mission, and make clear that you really want them to be there.
Finally, think about how you will communicate to your board how they can help attract and retain new diverse board members. They need to understand exactly what they should do. Like I said earlier, we all intend to do the work. But then we can get hung upon how to execute it. That's what your board members need to know from you.
Change: Create Belonging
Once you have recruited new board members, really allow them to be a part of your work. Invite them to site visits. If you have a grants committee, allow them to either serve as a member or to listen in on meetings so they can see the list of new grantees before they go out.
Sometimes boards I've been a part of have not made me part of the work. And it hurts.
After Minneapolis Police killed George Floyd, I got an email with a statement on diversity and inclusion from a nonprofit board that I sit on. I'm the only Black board or staff member, but I was not asked for my thoughts or even given the courtesy of seeing the email before it hit everyone's inboxes.
When we keep board members out this way, it can feel like a huge slap in the face. But the more that you can integrate your new members into your work, the more you will allow them to succeed — and that helps you retain them.
Don't be afraid to let them really see the good, the bad and the ugly. A lot of times we don't let people see the messy stuff. But that's what makes us feel part of a family.
Another thing that you might want to consider are your give-gets. They can be an obstacle when you put some hard and fast numbers on them.
In Austin, there's one board that I — and a lot of other people — would love to be on. I love their mission, but they require a $25,000 check to sit on their board. That is not doable for most people. And that means the organization ends up being not representative of our community. The more we can think about obstacles and ways that we can remove them, the more we will be able to recruit and retain.
That's why I established the Movement Maker Momentum Award. All money from my speaking engagements and from most of my consulting work goes into that fund. I will be using it to issue awards for first-time board members of color who don't have the means to make that first gift.
Financial concerns can also be an obstacle if you ask your board members to travel. Here's another story from my own experience. I was part of an international board. When you were recruited, you were told that they paid for all of your travel for board meetings.
But then when we got to the board table, they encouraged us not to submit reimbursement for travel. That feels like a bait-and-switch for people who are just starting out in their careers or who make less money than others at the table. They might feel shame for seeking reimbursement while others are not.
If you want to encourage members who have the means not to seek reimbursements, do that in a private manner and not have the treasurer make the request at the board table, which is something that I have seen.
Lastly, invite your new board members to be a part of VIP meetings. A lot of times we don't take new board members to the really important meetings, but what an incredible way to show to a grant maker, foundation or donor that you are walking the walk and allow that new board member to feel part of something important.
From Intent to Implementation
By now, you probably have a new vision taking shape for what your board could be. To start turning that vision into reality, write down your answers to the following questions. Your responses will help you start shaping a plan.
- What type of board members do you want to recruit? Dream big and be very specific. What does your new board table look like?
- How will you recruit those new members? Which organizations will you ask for help? If you're going to hold a listening session, what is that going to look like? Where are you going to have it?
- What obstacles might you face? What might stop you from getting this work done? What might be the one story that someone will tell in your community that will stop you from getting diverse board members at the table?
- How will you keep your existing board inspired and motivated? How will you communicate that, together, you can achieve these goals?
- How will you celebrate once you begin to get some wins?
- How will you share the story of those wins with others?
I'll be real with you. This process is not going to always feel good. But there's a way around every obstacle. And every misstep gives you new wisdom that will ultimately help you reach your goals. It's hard work. But it's vital work. And I'm always here to help.