Five Critical Steps Closer to Racial Equity on Nonprofit Boards

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When have we not been talking about race? The vocabulary changes over time, and hopefully each verbal evolution brings something new conceptually and leads us to a new place in terms of needed action and results. But whichever term and concept is in vogue, it is clear that the conversation must keep going.

This post looks at just one area of particular concern. That is, diversity of membership among our boards of directors. Without progress at that level it is almost impossible to achieve real and sustainable change in terms of racial equity toward those we serve.

The Current State

A little over a year ago, The Nonprofit Quarterly surveyed nonprofit CEOs to ask what keeps them awake at night. Composition of boards was the second highest concern raised and not surprisingly so. A BoardSource study somewhat before that compared racial diversity on nonprofit boards in 1993 and 2010. The finding was astonishing. In spite of being identified as an area of concern, Caucasian dominance of nonprofit boards had barely changed. In 1993 14% of members were persons of color; by 2010 that number had increased by only two percentage points to 16%.

Even without an exact breakdown of the race of children and adults served by COA accredited agencies, we know intuitively that because of disproportionate institutionalization and a variety of other factors there are an overwhelming majority of persons of color receiving care and services. The ratios of board membership in no way come close to matching the racial makeup of clientele. And aside from the moral and ethical issues that make this a concern from a business standpoint Independent Sector notes that nonprofits make up 5% of US GDP and “if any other industrial sector of the economy was of this size and this White, it would not be acceptable.”

OK – we have a problem. So what do we do?

And we can hardly hope to move to organizational and individual racial equity – the best term and practice in use at present in my view – if our organizational policymakers so seriously underrepresent those we serve.

To say that there is no silver bullet solution is a massive understatement. There are, however, steps to take.

  1. Leadership leads or it doesn’t happen
    In order to be proactive, the CEO and Board Chair have to share a commitment to appropriate racial makeup as first priority, and hold each other and themselves accountable for actions toward the goal. They should be visible leaders and spokespersons for achieving diversity by educating about diversity and organizational change. They should also establish a substantive framework to build and reinforce the commitment to the diversity initiative and respond to pressure from internal and external sources of resistance.
  2. Intentionality – name it and claim it
    Agency values and mission, clearly articulated and posted prominently on the website and elsewhere should make clear where the organization stands. One could hardly do better than the YWCA, “eliminating racism – empowering women.” No question where they are headed. Other ways to communicate this is via your board’s policies, see:

Council on Foundation’s policy on inclusiveness
Parent’s as Teachers Cultural Competence Policy
Other approaches and sample policies

  1. Create a baseline
    First conduct an assessment of your board’s demographics and then based on the results, identify the vision going forward: e.g., “The racial makeup of our board will have a proportional relationship to the demographic area in which we reside, and, more importantly to the makeup of our clientele.” From there, establish a measurable goal: e.g., “we will increase racial diversity on our board by 5% a year”.
  2. Give an extravagant welcome
    Checking the box doesn’t mean that all have voice. Tokenism should have died out long ago, but when exiting nonprofit board members of color have been asked they note that it has not. Bring on a class of persons of color – be sure welcome and orientation are authentic and deep. Ownership of these processes should involve total current board members.
  3. Now move beyond numbers
    An increase in percentages of members of color is only a first step. Moving new members rapidly and assertively into the flow of communication and onto the leadership track – is essential. In 2010 90% of board chairs were Caucasian. Waiting and hoping that the pipeline will move members forward is an insufficient strategy. Have a meaningful engagement plan. Build in leadership training and mentoring – as well as regular rotation of leadership positions – so that a board “career ladder” is a real and visible thing.

I will happily grant that nonprofit boards do not stay white-dominated because of bad intentions, but because history and inertia are powerful forces. Racial equity toward those we serve demands that we try harder. We need to commit and be vigilant. We need to think beyond a simple checklist, it’s a long term strategy for creating change through collaboration.