How To Diversify Your Nonprofit Board

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By Wayne Elsey

Diversity in your nonprofit board leads to diversity in the employees and donors of your organization. A variety of perspectives, experiences and networks will make your nonprofit stronger and more effective. For nonprofits, diversity ensures that your board doesn’t come from the same pool of contacts, promoting a healthy and vibrant representation of the communities you serve.

Improving diversity on your board can have ripple effects in other areas of your organization, such as attract diverse talent, improve innovation and contribute to long-term success. The reality is that nonprofit industry disruption not only includes the tech that’s going to make your organization more agile but also includes a diversity of people who will bring new ideas and perspectives to the work you do.

For decades, the most typical board of directors in the philanthropic sector consisted of people with significant professional, financial and power-giving achievements.

However, these kinds of qualifications often excluded minority candidates from the board of directors. To promote diversity, the board selection criteria need to change for more inclusion. Continuing to focus on traditional selection criteria won’t increase board diversity in your nonprofit organization.

Building a multi-faceted board can help your nonprofit organization make better decisions, diversify its supporter base and better serve the community. While everyone understands the need for diversification, many nonprofit professionals and voluntary board members don’t know where to begin and what process to follow to achieve board diversity in its top leaders.

Understanding the Bias Within Your Nonprofit

Although many nonprofits say they want to diversify the composition of their boards, it doesn’t happen. The data show that little progress has been made in this regard. Therefore, doing a self-assessment of diversity, inclusion and equity gives your nonprofit organization a starting point to identify areas to address.

In short, nonprofit leaders have to do some homework with their boards. One of the places to begin is by having your board and also the leadership team do an implicit bias quiz. There are also plenty of available resources on how to detect unconscious bias, and avoid racism and prejudice.

Beginning With Conversations

Achieving board diversity begins with the board leadership supporting and promoting the discussions and structures of board members that the organization needs. When establishing selection criteria, organizations need to reassess their board goals, including expertise and lived experiences, and other unique factors for diverse board member candidates.

Moreover, leaders must strike an appropriate, respectful and open approach at the top. They must also create an empowered environment to enable board members and employees to cultivate relationships that help identify potential board members. In other words, seeking non-traditional board members beyond white and wealthy people takes an all-hands-on-deck approach. For diversity, you want diverse ideas for people to include.

Creating a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Policy

Another important diversity factor is to ensure that your board has developed a statement and policy on diversity, equity and inclusion. Once the board determines why diversity matters, it can set intentions and goals and work toward them. If board members are resistant to change, having a policy makes it easier for the board to initiate discussions about inclusion and advance its diversity and equity goals. And for those who prefer to stall change, it also creates a path for them to move on.

Many board members understand that a homogeneous board is the result of short-sightedness and groupthink. Exceptional nonprofits recognize; however, that diversity is essential to an organization’s success. They see the link between an organization’s mission and board composition, and understand that creating an inclusive organization begins with establishing a diverse and inclusive board.

Make New Board Member Expectations Clear

One of the most significant issues of nonprofit boards is a fundamental misunderstanding of what nonprofit board members should do for the organization. If you have an existing board, consider whether it’s equipped to accept and work with new members or not. It’s also vital to be clear on expectations. In short, communication and clarity are essential, especially when you’re overhauling your board.

So, show your board members how they can help you accomplish the organization’s mission and make clear what you want them to do. You want them to understand that they are more than just a potential new source of income or connection to your next donor. Remember, likely, the integration of new members who don’t fit your board’s existing demographic and psychographic composition requires conscious cultural change among your current members, and it’s the responsibility of everyone to ensure inclusion.

Looking for Natural Leaders and Understanding How Non-Diversity Happens

If nonprofit boards understand the reasons why they need to increase diversity in the board and commit to seeking and recruiting a diverse board, it’s the first step toward moving away from past practices and toward a better direction. Not all volunteers want to serve on a board, so keep an eye out for those who look like natural leaders. Some boards rely on recommendations from current board members when they recruit people to the board.

Unfortunately, board members often rely on their social networks, which leads to non-diverse boards. Current board members approach the usual suspects — their best friends and individuals traveling in the same social circles and networks. Often this leads to a pool of candidates with little diversity. Therefore, nonprofits should apply objective criteria to ensure that their boards include diverse members, which creates a fairer system of leadership and representation.

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