July 12, 2018 \ Geoff Birmingham
The Boston Foundation Forum on Building Nonprofit Board Diversity


Building nonprofit board diversity presents challenges. Last month, The Boston Foundation hosted its fourth forum on the subject of nonprofit diversity, equity and inclusion. This forum focused on the Leading with Intent report that was published by BoardSource. While the report addresses a wide range of issues related to the functioning of nonprofit boards, the TBF event was mostly examining topics related to board diversity.

The CEO of BoardSource, Anne Wallestad, presented a variety of interesting findings. Here are a few that stood out:

In 2015, 25% of boards identified as 100% Caucasian; in 2017, that number had increased to 27%

Chief executives (65%) and board chairs (41%) expressed dissatisfaction with the diversity of their boards; but

Of the chief executives who reported unhappiness with board diversity, only 25% considered diversification a priority

Following Anne’s presentation of these and other findings, there was a panel discussion with several Boston nonprofit leaders. Much of the conversation centered on why board diversity is important, challenges organizations face when recruiting, and strategies for recruitment. Here are some of the ideas that were shared:

A board that is lacking in diversity has blind spots. As Anne pointed out, a homogenous board cannot serve as a “one size fits all” and might not recognize needs among the populations it serves.

Though it might seem that finding good minority candidates for boards is difficult, those candidates do exist. Often, it just requires nonprofit leaders to seek out networks of people beyond the ones they typically participate in.

The nonprofit boards and executives that succeed at diversification are intentional about making it a priority. For example, the Boston Public Library has language within its bylaws to set the library up for diversity.

Organization can improve their odds of recruitment if they are thoughtful about how they conduct their search. Two important activities that leaders can engage in to help with this are:

Think very hard about the “why.” Recruitment becomes easier when you are able to explain to a candidate the reasons why you want them on the board and why they should join. If a candidate is told, “Here are the assets you bring to the table to make this organization great,” that’s compelling.

Create a matrix for distribution. Leaders can also help their cause if they create a matrix of all the qualities they are seeking in a board member and then distribute that. If everyone understands clearly who the ideal candidate is, that strengthens the focus of the search.

A key piece of diversification is mentoring new board members. Beth Chandler from YW Boston talked about how her organization has an on-boarding program for new board members to facilitate their initiation to the board, help establish relationships with veteran board members, and deepen their institutional knowledge of the YW.

Organizations must hold themselves accountable when they fail.  This is not a “one and done” approach.  It is a process that requires consistent self-examination.