Nonprofit organizations play such a pivotal role in the United States. Many social services are utilized by individuals and families from all walks of life. Organizations like the Red Cross, Boys & Girls Club and the YMCA have become safe havens for many people who encounter tumultuous life events or those who want to build community and engage in recreational activities.
While these organizations serve diverse communities, this diversity is rarely reflected in their executive positions or on their boards. According to a 2017 BoardSource report, boards are not prioritizing demographics in their recruitment practices, despite chief executives being dissatisfied with their boards’ racial and ethnic diversity.
Being a board member is a profound and transformative professional development and leadership opportunity. It is not only an opportunity to contribute to your local community but also to work within a cross-functional team. Board members engage in diverse activities including fundraising, policy development and philanthropy — and they make decisions about staffing and budgets. Boards provide an opportunity to engage in advocacy work — and for board members to find and utilize their voice.
Diversity is critical for boards, especially nonprofit boards. Given that many nonprofits serve many historically vulnerable populations, their boards should reflect the communities they serve. There are three key reasons for this:
- With increased diversity, nonprofits can better evaluate how they serve and disseminate resources to their clients.
- Diversity increases a board’s fundraising base and connections to potential donors.
- When boards have to make tough decisions, having diverse members boosts synergy between the board and the chief executive to conduct an extensive cost-benefit analysis and evaluate all of the possibilities.
Are you a woman of color looking to join your first board? If both diversity and inclusion are part of your core values, here are a few questions to ask during your board interview.
In what ways is the board looking to expand its collective cultural awareness and sensitivity? This will give you some insight into how the board is prioritizing issues of diversity and inclusion. Are they recruiting members with diverse titles and life experiences? Are they prioritizing cultural sensitivity training among their staff and board? Are issues of diversity brought up during board meetings?
What are the board’s major strengths and areas for improvement? No board will be perfect, but you should have an honest assessment of where they can stand to improve before you assume your position. You should take note of how someone responds to this question. Are they hesitant to share their areas for improvement? If so, it may convey that the board does not foster a culture of transparency and openness.
What five qualities are important in new board members? For this question, you’re really interested in answers beyond one’s professional identity. It’s OK for boards to strategically recruit members who work in particular sectors or industries, as this knowledge can be very useful. However, what other qualities are valuable? Do they value other identities like race, gender, national origin, disability and/or the neighborhood in which a board member lives? These are all qualities that help make boards more diverse and inclusive. If you get an answer that seems jumbled, this may signal that the board has yet to work out a plan for the type of board members they desire — it may also hint at the board being fairly homogenous.
Could you describe the process of recruiting new board members? Who has decision making power? How are new members voted in? This question is probably the most important. A great board will get input from all board members about the type of members they would like to have. A great board will also ensure there are at least two or three board members who are interviewing the same candidate — this ensures that the interviewers are diverse and able to give different opinions on the candidate. All new members should then go up for a vote to the entire board — this ensures that all decisions are made equitably and everyone has a say in who joins the board. When you ask this question, and someone clearly lays out a process that signifies that decisions are made equitably, this can also shed light on how they make other decisions and reach consensus.
Board membership is not unidirectional. While it requires time and dedication, it should be mutually beneficial for both members and the organization. America is becoming a cultural melting pot, and thus organizations owe it to themselves and the diverse communities they serve to prioritize diversity in board recruitment.