Webinar Insights from Sharing Power: The Challenge of Board Diversity

four webinar speakers headshots

The issue of Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion (DEA&I) is making headlines in America right now, as it  ought to be. So agreed the panelists of nonprofit and corporate leaders who discussed diversity and  Board representation at the “Sharing Power: The Challenge of Board Diversity” webinar. The online event was co-hosted by Creative Fundraising Advisors (CFA) and CultureBrokers, both national organizations based in Minneapolis.

CFA President and fundraising consultant Paul Johnson kicked off the discussion noting how the U.S. has made zero progress in Board diversity. Johnson cited a recent BoardSource study which found 84% of Boards were Caucasian as of 2017, up from 80% in 1994. This illustrates how BIPOC individuals and groups have little institutional influence on the nonprofits impacting their communities.

The event — attended live by over 90 people from L.A. to Brooklyn to Dallas — focused on what nonprofit leadership can do to move the needle toward more diversity on Boards. You can watch the hour-long webinar on YouTube. Moderated by Johnson, along with DEA&I strategist Lisa Tabor of CultureBrokers, the panel included:

  • William Harris, president and CEO of Space Center Houston;
  • Samuel Hoi, president of the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA);
  • Kim Nelson, retired senior vice president of External Relations for General Mills; and
  • Drew Wilson, COO/CFO of SoundCloud.

Board Diversity Q&A

Staff and Board members are aware of the need to grow the power of BIPOC populations on Boards to enhance values, programs, governance, and efficacy, but they often lack the knowledge, skills, and commitment to move from  awareness into action. Johnson and Tabor led the group through a frank conversation on the subject as well as questions from participants.

Tabor: What are philosophies that need to change if an organization wants to diversify?

Hoi: “The barrier to Board diversity is intrinsically linked to structures in society and dominant culture. We must mindfully and actively dismantle these obstacles in our minds and in our Board policies and practices. People define power with what they have. If they have money, we can codify that money is important, but it is not the only form of currency. Money should not equal a Board seat. We must also recognize that knowledge, advocacy, community credibility, and honest feedback are as critical as money.”

“Most boards and members genuinely want to do good. However, well-intentioned people don’t always ensure good outcomes. Inherent bias limits the impact organizations intend to have on society. When Boards recruit from within their circles, they inadvertently nurture a cult culture instead of reflecting the people they serve.”

Tabor: How do the Board Chair and Executive Director work together to make the Board effective?

Harris – “This work is never done. The CEO and Chair must be committed to an inclusive board. They must be willing to listen to disparate voices. We have a proclivity as human beings to be with others like us. To confront that homogeneity, we have to be clear that we have a set of values around how we conduct ourselves. I am an advocate of a Code of Ethics complimentary to your Conflict-of-Interest declaration. It’s one way to address conscious bias.”

“Be clear about what you’re trying to advance culturally from entry-level employees to the Board. You have to walk the talk in your organization and expect the same from the Board. You have to have the candor to say, ‘we are not as representative as we need to be.’”

Tabor: What are you seeing in the corporate world in terms of Board recruitment where nonprofit boards could benefit?

Nelson: “They can benefit from each other.”

First, on recruitment, it’s about setting intentionality around what skills the organization needs for the future. There’s a lot of rigor in the corporate world for certain skills areas — ESG or cybersecurity or digitization. Focusing on skills has helped the for-profit world think about Board members.  Using a skills matrix can help focus on what you need.”

“A second option is requiring a diverse slate. If you have a skills matrix, you can get beyond why we want diversity. You simply need expertise. A best practice that works well with this is inclusion. You get there through Board onboarding. I’ve seen one-on-one onboarding with each board member and every key leadership team member. On another board, the Chair checks in once, twice or quarterly and ask questions like, ‘Are you getting your voice heard?’”

“Third, it’s important to have a robust feedback mechanism that’s quantitative, a survey with questions about equity on the Board. You must ask, ‘Do you have the opportunity to contribute?’ and ‘Is the board environment inclusive?’”

Tabor: What can leaders do to sustain a sense of urgency around diversity?

Wilson: “Since the pandemic and recent social justice movement, a lot of companies and organizations don’t want to be on the wrong side of it. Regulators, funders and customers require diversity.”

“NGO Boards have a false sense of comfort because they’re doing good. There’s a moment that’s happening now where I suspect you will see the ebb and flow of diversity turn favorably. The real benefit comes to the Board when you can add diverse members and their experiences and perspectives help the underlying performance of the organization.“

Johnson: There is a lot of data – it is fact — that a more inclusive and diverse organization is more productive and profitable. The Mansfield rule requires that 30 percent of the prospect pool be from a diverse population of women, people of color, LGBTQ+, and people with disabilities, and that an organization be intentional about recruiting through advertising and asking volunteers and community leaders far beyond regular networks. How do you prevent these changes from being performative?

Hoi: “Be committed to putting people of color in leadership positions. This cannot be rushed, but the Board membership has to embrace this as a mandate.”

Harris: “When you start having new members on the Board, make it participatory. Have a board retreat. Make it half play and half work. Be intentional around them getting to know each other. They’ll realize they have more commonalities than differences.”

Johnson: How do we break the pattern of complicity?

Nelson: “In the business world, which could happen in NGOs, two steamrollers are coming at companies: legislation requiring diversity and the investor community. A third is reporting requirements on diversity. The funding community can make a huge difference here in ensuring these moves aren’t performative.”

Johnson: Many organizations that serve majority BIPOC communities are white. How is that reconciled?

Wilson – “Self-awareness is not common in the Board room as it relates to homogeneity. Fear is what’s driving them to change now, but we have to hope that the value of diversity improves the Board’s effectiveness and becomes the number one motivator to expanding diversity at the Board level.”

Tabor: “One strategy is to add seats – don’t wait for a vacancy to come up. And, create a welcoming environment for people of color so they don’t feel tokenized.”

Hoi – “An all-white board serving a primarily non-white population or community is failing its fiduciary duty in some ways. The Board is about positioning its purpose and future and attracting maximum resources. In today’s contemporary society, an all-white Board won’t be attractive to future staff. Secondly, giving communities will not be interested in investing in non-diverse organizations. Last, diversity is a necessary lens for the Board but should never signify the value of the person once they’re at the table. That’s what it means to share power.”

Would you like to have more discussion and advice about how to make real change toward DEA&I? Read about CFA’s Finding Diverse Fundraising Talent webinar.