How Boards Are Improving and Failing – and What to Do Next

Posted: October 9, 2017

I’m a study geek, to a degree. I recommend the BoardSource report, Leading with Intent: 2017 National Index of Nonprofit Board Practices, as must reading for every nonprofit. For one reason, it’s the ninth report in this series since 1994, so there’s enough history to truly track “generalized trends and changes” in vital areas, the study purpose. For another, from my experience as a nonprofit consultant and a board member, the report addresses real priorities for nonprofit boards.

Leading with Intent 2017 was released in early September. I referenced it briefly in my monthly resource roundup. Here, I’m calling out study results on some issues I champion. There’s good news and I’m delighted to present it. But there are also discouraging updates that, in my view, must be addressed.

Promising Improvement: Board Education

Okay, I’m adamant about board education. Serving well on a board requires solid knowledge and training. The idea that board work is instinctual or that it’s fine to pick it up as you go along is a big cause of why boards and organizations flounder.

There are signs of promising improvement in attitudes toward board education. The study summary highlights that more board chairs and executive leaders acknowledge board members need ongoing education to understand an organization’s programs and operating environment. Boards that fully grasp how mission is fulfilled through programming demonstrate stronger strategic thinking and planning, engagement, commitment, leadership. These are powerful and critical board roles and qualities.

However, progress is still lagging on format. Leading with Intent 2017 results show that 69% of boards use written resources only for member education. You can imagine the percentage that are skimmed over or provided to “read when you get a chance.” Hands-on training and in-depth discussion as a group are far from the norm. That’s the next board education goal to achieve.

Getting There: Board Ambassadors & Advocates

Board members should be the positive face of their organization in the community, agree? They should make the case for an organization’s initiatives to decision-makers whose policies impact those a nonprofit serves.

Yet, the role of ambassador and advocate isn’t always at the forefront of board duties. Granted, not everyone is comfortable standing up and speaking out. Still, a board member’s responsibility is to represent the organization.

So it’s a welcome stat that more than half of all boards in the study are working with staff leadership on advocacy efforts that support their organization’s mission. Equally important, board chairs and executive leaders report recognizing the need for formal policies on board member advocacy and rate improving board member ambassadorship among their top three priorities. That kind of spotlight is encouraging to see.

Failing and Getting Worse: Board Diversity

Without question, the most disturbing study outcome is the continued lack of diversity in nonprofit boards. Leadership is 90% Caucasian; membership is 84%. Only 8% of board members are African American; only 5% are Hispanic or Latino; only 3% are Asian. The figures are worse for leadership. The number of boards that identify as all white has increased since the last report in 2015, from 25% to 27%.

In terms of age diversity, only 17% of board members are under 40. Gender has close-to-balanced stats, with women making up 48% of members, to 52% for men. Even so, there aren’t figures for diversity within gender, only less than 1% “Other.” There are none for board members with disabilities.

Leading with Intent 2017 does not shy away from why diversity matters. Among the effects, it influences the perspective of board members, including their understanding of the mix of cultures and issues within their communities. Lack of diversity undermines potential for new or different thinking and problem solving.

Perhaps most discouraging, there’s little action among boards to recruit more diverse members. My question is why? We may have ideas, but what specifically are the roadblocks to greater diversity among board members? How can those roadblocks be removed? I intend to pursue these questions as they apply to the Hudson Valley. I’ll be sharing what I learn in the months ahead.

Download the Leading with Intent 2017 report here. For board education strategies, let’s talk.