Keeping the Conversation Going on Board Diversity

Posted: November 30, 2017

I’ve been taking a writing class focused on memoir. A classmate described an experience that I’ve thought of often, most recently following a group discussion on board diversity in the Hudson Valley. He’s African American and recalled being a boy going with his grandmother, also African American, to vote in a setting of hostility toward black voters. Afterwards, she told him that her ballot was probably destroyed. Yet she urged her grandson to remember one thing: despite all, the important thing is to vote. 

I find in my colleague’s anecdote a reminder of the power of perseverance and tenacity; of the belief that change is possible. Yes, voting rights are still an issue, yet voting is still essential. In the same vein, though there’s a gaping lack of diversity among nonprofit boards in our region and no simple solutions, the conversation on diversity has to keep going, to move ever further toward action.

Communication, Not Just Talk

Let me state upfront that there’s plenty of reason to be discouraged that nonprofit boards, locally and beyond, are disproportionately white. There are other measures of diversity, of course, but greater racial and ethnic representation are primary needs. In an earlier blog this fall I highlighted the Leading with Intent BoardSource national study that shows board leadership is concerned about lack of diversity but doing little about it. Empty talk that’s basically wheel spinning is not what I’m advocating.

Rather, I’ve been searching for resources on how to improve board diversity and where to begin. From a common-sense perspective, it starts with honest communication. Boards that aren’t diverse need to stop and ask why they’re so homogenous and why/how to change. Studies show diverse boards are stronger because they draw on more varied thinking around issues. But it’s not a stretch to recognize that some boards want easy consensus, not debate, however valuable the outcome. Pushing against this complacency with “good enough” decision-making may be a first push toward diversity.

Trust and Openness Required

One recommendation for engaging in candid communication around diversity is to hold a retreat for all board members. My last blog praised my recent experience at a three-day program retreat. Done well, a retreat is an ideal setting for going deep into roadblocks to achieving board diversity and how to remove them. Yet like any learning opportunity, there are prerequisites that can’t be waived. Those include a sense of trust and openness among board members, so that individuals feel comfortable voicing their views.

A benefit of keeping the conversation going around diversity is how it can reveal other qualities that confirm a board’s overall health or spotlight a weak foundation to shore up. If your board lacks internal trust and openness, that’s another whole need to address. As a consultant and board member, I’ve observed the place to start is at the top with the tone set by the board chair. The governance committee as well can initiate a change in culture within a board. And let’s be clear, trust between members and welcoming varied perspectives are at the heart of how an effective board operates.

Grooming Diverse Board Candidates

Discussions on board diversity also need to acknowledge the dilemma of how to encourage and prepare more diverse candidates for board service when boards aren’t asking. In considering this challenge, I’m reminded of a comment I heard not long ago. To paraphrase: change requires champions.

As I recall the recent conversation I was part of on board diversity, champions of change are already present in the Hudson Valley. I know and work with dynamos from diverse communities in our region who are natural role models for educating and motivating others to be ready and interested in board service. Current board members who want their boards to be more diverse — and I include myself — can reach out to coach and mentor African American and Latino candidates, for example. Critical too is ensuring the goals are broad, not token, racial and ethnic board presence.    

We have to keep the focus on creating nonprofit boards that are meaningfully inclusive. I don’t pretend to have all the answers. But I pledge to keep pressing for true board diversity in the Hudson Valley, for as long as it takes.

Looking for board education, including through a retreat? Let’s talk.