Having Trouble Diversifying Your Board? The Culprit May Be Your Discriminatory Database and Application Forms

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by Kathy Johnson Bowles

Like the institutions they oversee, nonprofit boards profess a desire to be more diverse. Few, however, achieve that goal. A 2018 report from the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy found that nonprofit boards are 78.6 percent white, 7.5 percent African American, 4.2 percent Latino American, and 2.6 percent Asian American.

So why are boards with explicit diversity goals falling short? Deep-rooted prejudices and stereotypes about philanthropic giving and leadership can lead boards to give up on diversity goals or dismiss them altogether. Consider the identity of a stereotypical board member and philanthropist — white, male, heterosexual, married, Ivy League educated, leader of community organizations, and a CEO.

Ideas about who can be a board member are often based on implicit bias regarding power, wealth, and stature. Have you ever attended a board meeting where someone offers these cringe-worthy statements about building a diverse board? “Do we really want diversity?” and “We can have diversity, or we can have money.” These types of statements reflect myths about leadership in philanthropic giving.

So, what can nonprofit organizations do to get past these prejudices and build diverse boards? The answer often lies in the tools used to identify and appoint board members. Specifically, the donor databases and application forms organizations rely on frequently reflect biased assumptions about the best candidates.

Problematic Databases

Here’s how the process typically works: The development staff searches the nonprofit’s database for donors who meet key wealth and engagement criteria. The list is pared down by senior staff, and biographies are created for each candidate. But every year, the list includes mostly white men. Why?

The problem most likely stems from a lack of diversity on the fundraising staff, which in turn relies on stereotypes about power and privilege as it scours the constituent database for possible board members. The search queries they create likely miss the very criteria needed to ensure diversity. This can occur, for example, when the male constituent in a heterosexual couple is always entered as the primary donor and staff fails to search for information about his wife or partner’s employment or community involvement that could flag her as a prospective board member.

Likewise, if same-sex couples aren’t entered into the system as a couple, the organization is likely missing information essential to identifying LGBTQ+ individuals as potential board members. Such practices put up further barriers to finding diverse candidates if the search is conducted by fundraising staff who assume that couples are male-female.

After pulling the data, the senior staff typically edits the list to top prospects and conduct research. This is where an opportunity for identifying a diverse pool is often lost.

Most of the time, staff members scan data looking for what they perceive as major accomplishments. Without recognizing it, they may be looking for employers, educational backgrounds, and community involvement associated with stereotypical white male power and privilege, such as a position with a well-known financial-services group, an Ivy League education, and membership in community-service organizations such as Rotary Club, Lions Club, or the Chamber of Commerce. These are perfectly fine achievements and affiliations, but they are unlikely to result in a more diverse board.

Instead, staff and nominating committees must be trained to look for and recognize achievement from a diverse perspective by carefully reading the data and searching for clues about identity, leadership qualities, and expertise. For example, do the staff and board know the names of the most prestigious historically Black colleges and universities? Do they know what the Divine Nine is and the names of these historically Black fraternities and sororities? The group Diversity Best Practices provides a helpful resource called African American Organizations to Know.

If alums are part of the constituent base, when was the last time the organization’s development office conducted research comparing top board prospects by major and degree? At one institution I worked with, I had to show staff and board members data to prove that the majority of top prospects had degrees in the arts and humanities rather than business, economics, and finance. Even with that data, many remained skeptical, making biased statements like “We don’t know those people.” Often, staff and board members searching for prospects won’t even look outside the school of business, where most prospects — at least those who are over 45 years of age — are white men.

Of course, finding truly diverse board members requires considering more than a candidate’s educational and employment background and community involvement. Valuing people for their knowledge and expertise is the best way to engage and retain a diverse board. That starts with considering what expertise the board needs.

A matrix listing demographic information and skills of the current board will help identify gaps. For example, if a lawyer is needed, search for one whose firm focuses on human-rights law or provides pro bono work for social-justice organizations. If human-resources experience is critical, look for a chief diversity officer. If the board needs an art historian, find a scholar with expertise on works by people of color, women, or the disenfranchised and underrepresented.

A Biased Application Process

Boards that use applications or questionnaires to vet candidates should review the forms used to collect information to weed out potential bias. What do the questions presume about who can be a board member? What do they convey about the board’s values? If the application process doesn’t convey a belief in diversity, equity, and inclusion, diverse candidates won’t even apply.

Some problems in application forms that could turn off prospects are easily rectified. For example, asking people to identify themselves with the honorifics “Mr., Mrs., Ms., or Miss” could deter women who find being identified by their marital status offensive. Such honorifics could also offend LGBTQ+ individuals and their allies because they exclude people who don’t identify as male or female or don’t subscribe to marital status as defined as a man and a woman. Instead, ask for pronouns: “she, her, hers;” “he, him, his;” or “they, them, their.” And rather than “alumna” or “alumnus,” use the gender-neutral “alum” or the plural “alums” or “alumnx.”

How forms seek information can also send a message about inclusivity. For example, acknowledge transgender identities by requesting a person’s “lived name,” not “preferred name.” Pay close attention as well to how a name is written and honor its spelling, including the use of diacritical marks. For example: Don’t write to “Jose Gilford” thanking him for applying if the application came from José-Marie Gilford — a woman’s name.

Small language tweaks convey a larger message than many organizations realize. For instance, asking for “experience and expertise” rather than “employment history” shows a commitment to creating a board made up of people with more than fancy job titles.

Finally, a nonprofit can signal a commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion by requiring a diversity statement or asking for a short answer to questions such as “How do diversity, equity, and inclusion play a role in your everyday life (professionally and personally)?”

Never accept the notion that board diversity is unattainable. That’s just not true. Databases and applications are excellent tools for achieving diversity if they are developed using a set of questions and rules that embrace differences.

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