Everyone wants to diversify their boards. Having a diverse board, especially one with people who have lived experience around your mission, will help you make better decisions.
Here are some things to think about:
- Think Broadly. Think of diversity in the broadest sense – ability, age, ethnicity, gender identity, geography, race, religion, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic status. All of these areas can enrich your discussions and add important perspective. Depending on your mission, some may be more critical than others. Remember too that just because someone is white, male, or older does not mean that they are bad board members. They may have lots to offer including lived experience in your area, skills important to running your organization, and connections. As you know, what you do not want is a board that is all older white males.
- Reflect on Current Board Composition. Spend time to understand why your board is not diverse. Do you recruit by using the networks of current board members? Then actively build more connections in community and post board opportunities more broadly. Do your recruitment materials – and actual practices – describe your organization’s commitment to diversity? Do you have practices that limit some populations? A large minimum donation can make board membership out of reach for young people, hourly workers, and students. Many boards ask that board members give a “personally significant gift,” realizing that different board members have different means. Early morning meetings or evening meetings may be difficult for parents who have to get kids off to school or find a sitter. One board I was on offered childcare so parents could attend meetings. Another board I was on – in the 90s before Zoom – allowed me to call in to 7 am board meetings. I was the only member with young kids. The rest of the board wanted to meet before work. Transportation can also be an issue and organizations will offer to pay for transportation or parking.
- Avoid Tokenism. Don’t bring diverse individuals on your board just because they are diverse. That is tokenism. Make sure they bring a particular perspective, skill, or experience you need on your board and be able to articulate what that is to them, the community, staff, and other stakeholders. One board worked very hard on this. It was an education-oriented board. They had a black leader who worked at a local college, another who worked at a partner organization, and a third with fundraising experience. They had an Asian person who was a business leader and another in the medical field. They had several students. They had a Latinx members who represented government and another with financial background. Best, when a new member walked into their first meeting, they were not confronted by a room full of rich white people. They saw a room that reflected the community and the kids they were trying to serve.
- Make your Board Welcoming. Creating a board that is both diverse and effective usually requires a conscious cultural shift. Some members may not be ready for this, and you will need to provide training and support while you evolve. Provide training to current board members to help everyone identify their own biases. Hold regular conversations with the board about DEI work. Talk about why board diversity is important. Review your recruitment process and how it can be more inclusive. Explore how your board functions and what biases are present: Who sets the agenda? What rules of order do you use? Is it a safe place for everyone to speak openly? What can you do to create an environment that encourages board members to listen and learn from each other?
- Recruit Differently. Recruit board members in new ways and different places. Ask your staff for ideas – they are well connected into the communities you serve. They will know the leaders in these communities who would make good board members. Board and organizational leadership should spend time talking to as many people as possible about your work and asking them for ideas of prospective board members. Ensure not only that your recruitment materials reflect your organization’s commitment to diversity but also that all of your marketing materials, web site, and social media use language and images that honor the people you serve.
- Update Your Onboarding Process. A single long meeting to onboard a new member can be overwhelming. Consider holding several meetings that focus on different topics: finance and fundraising, programs, DEI, and board governance.
Also, think about the assumptions you make when onboarding new members. Just because someone is older does not mean they will understand your culture better than someone who is younger. In fact, younger people are often more comfortable with a diverse environment, with everyone sharing their pronouns, with a conscious focus on being inclusive and welcoming. One large and complicated organization worked hard to bring on several younger members. These individuals spoke up and said they felt lost – assuming that their age was the issue. The organization responded by creating a Young Leader’s Group. This was good. But when an older person, who was also new to the board, heard about it, they said, “I wish I had that too. I was completely overwhelmed when I joined.” The younger people were bolder about speaking up. But all new board members were inundated.
Create a Board Buddy system. Have an experienced board member reach out to the new member before the first meeting to help set the stage for how the board meetings work. Have that person sit next to the new board member at the first meeting to answer any questions. Then have them follow up after the first couple meetings to make sure everything is going along well.
- Bring on Classes. Try each year to bring on several new board members – or a class. New board members can commiserate about the time it takes to come up to speed. And having classes means you won’t lose all your board members at once. Experience on a board and with an organization is valuable for institutional knowledge. One board I know of is in the middle of some big transitions and they have reached out to a few former board members to rejoin – because they need that knowledge.
- Take Time: Take the time to get it right. If you try to diversity your board, and you do it poorly, you will hurt your credibility with all of your stakeholders.