As the U.S. population continues to grow more diverse, it’s critical that the makeup of nonprofit boards reflects this changing cultural landscape. A board that is sensitive to socio-economic differences has a stronger capacity to attract and retain talented members organizationwide, as well as be in touch with community needs and make important inroads into the community.

“Having a diverse board with a range of views and experiences can be both a blessing and a curse,” says Joel L. Domingo, Ed.D., associate professor and academic program director at City University of Seattle’s Leadership Program. “On the upside, they provide a broad perspective when facing daily issues or challenges. But diversity within a team can also lead to factions, coalitions between certain members and misunderstandings that result in coordination failure.”

Give all board members a voice

One of the biggest challenges of team building when creating a board that’s both inclusive and cohesive is managing and honing the communication skills necessary for effective goal setting, problem solving, and otherwise carrying out the organization’s mission.

“Different people have different communication styles, which may result in some members with quieter, laid-back approaches perceiving they don’t carry the same weight as louder, more boisterous members,” says Gregory Price, Ed.D., associate professor and associate dean at CityU. “The facilitator needs to take an active role in managing the different voices in the group.”

Leveling the communications playing field may require the facilitator to encourage open and respectful dialogues, consciously direct group deliberations, break the group into smaller discussion units, and even set a timer to give each individual an equal opportunity to be heard.

Take the emotions out of communications

Bringing together a team with different backgrounds, values and personalities can be fraught with both passion and emotional tension.

“It’s important to remove emotions from communication and focus on a common goal,” Domingo says. “When everyone realizes and accepts that they don’t have to agree with everyone on the board, or even necessarily like them, it makes things easier. It’s about the work, not socializing. It’s about cooperation, not friendship. It’s about respect, not being soul mates. Team members don’t have to see eye to eye on everything, or share the same views — they just have to get along well enough to get the job done.”

Building a shared mission

“Without diversity, everyone begins to think the same about issues and might miss opportunities to achieve the mission,” says Tony Dixon, Ed.D., an alumni of the CityU Leadership Program, and head of learning and development at Volunteers of America. “Creating a shared mission among people with a variety of backgrounds and interests takes both leadership and communicating with finesse.”

One strategy Dixon uses for getting everyone on the same page is creating a reflection board. Simply write one question or statement at the top of a large white board, and then invite board members to write their own responses. People may have different reasoning, but if they agree that the statement or question matters, then there’s common ground for a mission.

Dixon also suggests playing the Devil’s Advocate. If the focus of the nonprofit were to be ignored, what does it mean? For example, if your organization helps veterans with mental health challenges, what is the impact of not helping them? How does that impact individuals, families, communities, the health care system, etc.? “Sometimes looking at things from the opposite perspective clarifies why the issue is a problem worthy of attention,” Dixon says.

Strong communication, mutual respect for varied opinions and values, and a shared mission, are all important tools in fully utilizing a diverse board to create meaningful change in both the organization and the community.


Five keys to leading a diverse board

Gregory Price shares 5 keys to leadership.

  1. Establish ground rules from the onset.
  2. Set clear expectations.
  3. Keep the board on task.
  4. Allow for challenging assumptions.
  5. Give everyone an equal voice.

City University of Seattle is a private nonprofit university accredited through the doctoral level. It has been ranked by U.S. News & World Report among the Top 50 in the country for its online bachelor’s degree programs for eight consecutive years.