When it comes to nonprofit boards, diversity and inclusion efforts are key to dynamic, well-rounded decision making.
Diversity creates stronger boards, bolsters organizational culture and better represents the community being served. In short, everyone wins.
Even so, it's not happening everywhere. A recent survey of 1,378 nonprofits found that 27% have no people of color on their board, and 65% of executives and 41% of board chairs report dissatisfaction with their board's racial and ethnic diversity.
"Fostering diversity and inclusion on a nonprofit board shows everyone who has a vested interest in the organization—be it volunteers, donors or community—that they are all on the same page about their commitment to diversity," said Porsche Wilson, treasury client services manager for BOK Financial®. "It's a way to put action to values."
For Wilson, the topic is a personal one. "As a black woman, who is also a veteran, I am often bringing diversity to the organizations I serve," she said. "And I serve with several area nonprofits, so I understand both sides of the coin."
Wendy Thomas, executive director of Leadership Tulsa, said that, diversity is particularly important for her nonprofit and board.
"Because of our role in developing the leaders of tomorrow, it's important we reflect the future of our community," she said. "Tomorrow's leaders need to look more diverse, because our community is more diverse."
She said currently in the U.S., those under 30 years of age represent the most multicultural generation in the country's history. "Nonprofit organizations have to reflect diversity or they won't survive," Thomas said.
Wilson, who recently spoke on a panel at the D CEO Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Symposium in Dallas, said diversity doesn't always mean race—but sometimes it does.
Diverse input when decisions are made can lead to better discussion and better outcomes, she said. "When people have different lived experiences, they're going to approach problem solving in a different way," she said.
And when there is diversity on a nonprofit's governing board, it provides a system of checks and balances. "There are other people in the room to challenge ideas, to ask if you've thought things through and work through pain points you may not have anticipated," Wilson said.
Thomas added that people are paying close attention. "If your nonprofit has historically been less diverse, people are watching to see if you not only talk the talk, but walk the walk," she said. "They want to know that it's not just words, it's authentic."
How to diversify your nonprofit board
"The first step is taking a step," Wilson said. "It's not enough to talk about your intentions if you don't follow through. It can seem daunting, but if everyone is transparent and honest in their intentions, it's absolutely a worthwhile effort."
But—the job isn't done when diversity is represented on a board of directors, Wilson said.
"Diversity and inclusion aren't synonyms," she said. "It's important to ensure every member of your board feels seen, heard, valued and respected."
Thomas agreed. "Nobody wants to feel like a token, or like they don't have a voice on the board they're serving on," she said. "Whether you're seeking women, people of color or people that are differently abled, don't just recruit one person. Let them be a big enough voice on the board that they feel empowered to step up and be heard."
Wilson and The National Council of Nonprofits offer some additional tips for getting started:
- Conduct a board self-assessment to identify strengths and opportunities for growth.
- Verbalize, and formalize, your values with actionable goals.
- Ask current board members to set aside time to take an unconscious bias training.
- Seek out resources on diversity and inclusion to share with board members.
- Be transparent on how board members are chosen.
- Ask the community being served by the nonprofit who they would like to see on the board.
Intentionally creating the space means being prepared for more dynamic conversations.
"In addition, if you're trying to create a more diverse nonprofit board, I suggest taking a step back and looking at things you culturally take for granted to ensure they're going to work for more than just the status quo," Thomas said.
She suggests looking at things like the time and place of board meetings, the type of social functions being held, and the way you recognize and work around holidays. "Just because it's comfortable for you, doesn't mean it will be comfortable for another group of people," she said.
"The goal is to surround yourself with folks who have different opinions than you—so brace yourself to hear different opinions," she said. "Obviously views should be shared with respect, but it's normal to experience a few growing pains."
Being open, honest and prepared to listen will go a long way, Wilson said.
It just makes sense
Janet Huber, director of inclusion at BOK Financial said nonprofit leadership should represent the community being served; and often it's a good idea to invite community members to join the board.
"Your board should be diverse, because your employees are diverse, your community is diverse," said Huber. "Showing a commitment to diversity and inclusion in this way reminds everyone that you're actively engaged in the world around you, that you know who your clients are. It allows them to see themselves in your organization."
"It's often true that those closest to the problems are more likely to know what it will take to solve them," said Thomas. "People further from it might have assumptions, expectations, or even bias, but by engaging a more diverse group in tackling the challenges, you'll find more sustainable, long-term solutions."
Evan Walter, Institutional Wealth relationship manager with BOK Financial and former nonprofit leader, said, "Having decision makers that really represent your target demographic is hugely beneficial. Creating space for diversity and inclusion on your board is an example of working smarter, not harder."
Walter said it can take the guess work out of meeting community needs and can help avoid future pain points.
Representation on boards inspires longevity—both with donors and volunteers.
"When people see someone like themselves on the board, it gives them something to aspire to," Walter said. "It lets them envision what sort of long-term goals are within reach for that organization."