The Importance of Board Diversity

Board diversity is a critical component for any nonprofit board. And when we talk about diversity, it’s not just diversity of race or ethnicity, but also diversity of age, gender, and background.

Ultimately, you want a nonprofit board to reflect the community it serves. And since most communities are reasonably diverse, you want to ensure that the board represents the community’s interests and embraces that diversity.

Why board diversity matters

The board’s role is to govern the organization, and you need people governing who can understand and express the need you’re trying to meet. If you’re a nonprofit seeking to improve healthcare access for women living in poverty, you can’t effectively do that with a board that only includes men. If you’re trying to improve educational outcomes for teens of color, you can’t effectively do that with a board that’s all white and over the age of 50.

Yes, board diversity can be a challenging topic to discuss. It makes people uncomfortable to talk about racism (particularly institutional racism) and how it affects communities of color. It also makes people uncomfortable to talk about sexism and gender inequity and how that impacts women. But it’s an absolutely necessary conversation when talking about board diversity of any nonprofit.

Understanding the community you serve

The nature of 501(c)(3) organizations is that they serve vulnerable communities. And because of things like racism, sexism, classism, and other –isms, those communities have special needs. You can’t know what they are unless there’s someone sitting across from you who has lived it and can tell you.

Nonprofits are often tackling difficult issues where there are no easy answers. Throwing money at a problem doesn’t fix it. Yes, women’s access to healthcare can be improved with funding, but you also have to talk about socialization. Many women have been socialized as caretakers and thus don’t express their own needs or pains. If a nonprofit board doesn’t realize that, it’s hard to truly address the problem. But if you have someone on the board who represents and understands that community and can help educate the rest of the board, you have a better chance of success.

There are also the elements of trust and perception to consider when it comes to board diversity. If you’re serving communities of color and have an all-white board, that’s not going to look good for the organization and people aren’t likely to trust you. That makes it even harder to accomplish the mission you’ve set forth, because not only do you have programming challenges from not truly understanding the issue and the community, but now you have public relations challenges as well.

Recruiting a diverse board

When we talk about board diversity, we’re not saying you need to set a specific goal for X percent of the board to be representative of the community you’re serving. It’s also not something you want to put in your bylaws or policies, because if you can’t keep up with it, then you’re not in compliance with your own policies, and that’s not good either.

Recruiting a diverse board involves acknowledgement of the importance of diversity and recognition that institutional racism and/or lack of resources could be a barrier to people from certain communities serving on your board. Awareness is the first step!

The board’s job (or the governance committee’s job if you have one) is to find the right people to serve your organization. It’s more about creating a mindset and a culture that values diversity than it is about writing a policy to require it.

Make sure you’re thinking about diversity in all its aspects when filling board positions, as well as still considering skillset and how diverse skills help your organization succeed. Think about community representation, life experience, age, gender, and skills to create a truly diverse board that can move you organization toward fully understanding and serving the needs of your community.

Alexandra Bliss