Are We Creating More Diverse Boards?

Posted: February 25, 2016

We’re in Oscar season, and one thing I enjoy about the lead-up to the awards ceremony is the lineup of Oscar-winning movies on my classic movie channel. There has been controversy this year over the lack of diversity among nominees for the four major acting awards. I’ve thought about that as I watch many of the vintage films. For example, as I catch older dramas, say from the ‘50s, with boardroom scenes, I’m struck by the all-white, all-male, “older” boards portrayed.

Yet how far have we actually come in creating more diverse nonprofit boards? I’ve long lobbied for more board diversity. Here’s an update, as I see it.

The Bad, the Good, the Hopeful

I know it’s usual to start with good news. But in this case I don’t think we should soften the blow. Consider how much boards – and nonprofit leadership overall – still look like those Hollywood versions more than a half-century ago. These stats are from the BoardSource 2014 Governance Index: “Is Your Board ‘Normal’?” The focus is on race and age:

  • 90% of board chairs are white.
  • 91% of board chairs are over age 40.
  • 89% of executive directors are white.
  • 94% of executive directors are over age 40.


The 2015 BoardSource study, Leading With Intent: A National Index of Nonprofit Board Practices, offers a further picture of lackluster progress:

  • 25% of boards remain all white.
  • 68% of board members are between ages 40 and 65.


As promised, from the same 2015 study, there’s some good news. The numbers are way too low, but there are these gains:

  • Persons of color on boards increased from 16% in 2010 to 20% in 2014.
  • Board members under age 40 increased from 14% in 2010 to 17% in 2014.


And again from the 2015 study, here’s what I see as hopeful:

  • Looking at board diversity in composition and structure, higher percentages of board leaders express dissatisfaction with current levels of diversity in most categories (race/ethnicity, socioeconomic, persons with a disability, LGBTQ).
  • Particularly in the areas of race/ethnicity and socioeconomic diversity, expanding diversity is viewed as increasing the ability to advance a nonprofit’s mission.


These points speak to attitude – to recognizing that more diversity is needed and that it contributes to advancing an organization. And it’s going beyond age and race to include a broader definition of diversity. That’s where I see reason for hope. A first step in addressing any problem is acknowledging that you have one.

Power of Inclusion

In preparing this blog, I also I reread an article titled “Reframing Goverance II” by David Renz, from Nonprofit Quarterly last year. It’s a dry title for a provocative piece. In it, Renz makes the case for nonprofits to recognize their need to collaborate – to build essential alliances and coalitions to support their mission. His conclusion is that inclusive organizations are better prepared to create those collaborations.

In particular, Renz nods to young people’s greater willingness to network. As he says, “Cross-generational leadership that blends the wisdom and experience of senior leaders with the curiosity and creativity of younger leaders makes our sector stronger.”

I couldn’t agree more – and the same can be said about all areas of diversity. The question remains: how do we get effectively and substantially to that place of strength in diversity? I don’t have the answers – but I know for certain that the conversation must continue!


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