When nonprofits first form, they usually welcome as board members anyone who has the time and interest. But as organizations grow in size, revenue and complexity, the makeup of their boards generally must change. For example, they may want members with legal or financial expertise or to include major donors and business leaders.
One critical consideration for an evolving board is diversity. Nonprofit boards need to reflect—or at least contain members who represent—the people and interests they serve, as well as their local communities. This may require recruiting new members from diverse racial, economic, religious and other backgrounds. For many nonprofits, this can be a challenge.
What’s the need?
The desirability of greater board diversity may seem like a no-brainer if, for example, a nonprofit that provides services to the disabled has no board members with a physical disability. The same would be true for a nonprofit women’s health clinic that’s overseen exclusively by men. Without the perspective of people who use its services, a charity is more likely to waste resources on ineffective programs and neglect its constituents’ actual needs.
But what about organizations that serve the general public, such as arts and cultural nonprofits? According to the New York Times, 67% of New York City’s residents identify as persons of color. Yet minorities make up less than 25% of the boards of most of the city’s major cultural institutions, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and New York City Ballet. This past summer, Mayor Bill de Blasio told museums and cultural groups that they need to boost board diversity or risk losing city funding.
Your nonprofit may not face such a direct mandate or feel that lack of board diversity hurts your bottom line—at least not now. But it’s important to consider the long-term repercussions of being disconnected from your community. Eventually, support from business leaders, politicians, journalists and even donors will likely dry up.
Where’s the talent?
Of course, knowing that your board needs greater diversity and actually finding qualified individuals who are passionate about your mission are two different things. You may need to relax or change some of your criteria for new board members. One of the biggest obstacles for younger and minority candidates can be money — they may not be able to make major gifts or help out if your organization experiences a temporary cash shortfall.
As with many of your nonprofit’s initiatives, the best place to start is with your current board. Ask members to search their personal and professional address books for potential candidates. But tread carefully. Some board members may think that you’re trying to replace them. If your nonprofit’s bylaws cap the number of board members you’re allowed to have at any one time, consider amending them to enable diversity without “firing” current members who are doing a good job.
When you’re trying to build a board that reflects your community, there’s no better source than local institutions. Look to your community’s:
- City council
- Chamber of Commerce
- Rotary Club, Lion’s Club and other service organizations
- Newspaper editorial board
- Faith leaders
- College and university faculty and administrators
- Professional advisors such as CPAs, bankers and attorneys.
Also, pay attention to local news and the people who are making it. Biographical and professional information can generally be found online and help you determine whether these “newsmakers”—or possibly one of their social media connections—might be a good fit for your organization. Online tools such as LinkedIn Board Connect (nonprofit.linkedin.com), VolunteerMatch (volunteermatch.org) and boardnetUSA (boardnetusa.org) can introduce you to promising candidates as well.
Another option is to hire a nonprofit diversity consultant. This professional can analyze your board’s current makeup, identify its “gaps” and recruit board members that meet your desired criteria. Also, some communities have board placement services that train professionals to work on nonprofit boards and help to place them with charities.
As you may already know, boosting board diversity can be a long and involved process. To help you keep your eye on the ball, the National Council of Nonprofits has a couple of useful suggestions: Publicly state your organization’s commitment to diversity and then choose concrete, actionable goals that will help your board make that statement a reality.
Do the stats match the talk?
Although there’s plenty of discussions these days about diversity on nonprofit boards, the numbers don’t necessarily match the current discourse. “Leading with Intent,” a 2017 study of 1,700 public charities, foundations and other nonprofits conducted by BoardSource, found that board composition has changed very little in the past two decades.
In 1994, the average nonprofit board was 82% Caucasian. In 2016 that number was actually higher—84%. Currently, 27% of nonprofit boards are exclusively white. These numbers are particularly surprising given that 65% of current nonprofit CEOs claim they’re dissatisfied with the racial and ethnic composition of their boards.