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Apr 13, 2022

Everyone knows the importance of increasing board diversity – particularly at nonprofits.

But as most of us also (rather depressingly) know, being aware of this doesn’t always translate to reality.

In fact according to Fundraising Voices, only 22% of board members nationwide come from underrepresented backgrounds. Furthermore, according to the 2021 Leading With Intent: BoardSource Index of Nonprofit Board Practices report, boards can be categorized as being disconnected from the communities they serve. Almost half of all chief executives said they did not have the right board members to establish trust; only a third place a high priority on those communities; and even fewer prioritize membership within those communities. You don’t need us to explain that it is quite clear from all this that there are still real barriers impacting diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility (DEIA) efforts.

But could there be an answer to this?

We think there could, and it comes in two forms: reviewing nonprofit board criteria and conducting audits. Here’s what we mean for each:

1) Reviewing board criteria

Nonprofits should understand that one size does not fit all. As such, nonprofits must establish board criteria, and the best starting point is by having conversations about diversity.

The National Council of Nonprofits is an excellent place to start. It provides tips for how these conversations should go, including how to do future planning, how to expand cultural awareness, how to create diversity of professional expertise, how to extend geographic reach, and how to identify strengths and weaknesses of the organization and much more.

Rather than skirt around issues, the council suggests having really candid conversations about diversity and other important issues for boards. It also provides a tip sheet to help nonprofits get started.

While the criteria for diversity will be different for every nonprofit [it depends on its mission, values and target communities], boards should still strive for better representation – whether it is from the communities that are being served or the skillsets that are lacking on the board or within the organization. Skillsets can be financial, legal or even political, if government funding is high on the priority list.

2) Conducting board audits

After reviewing your criteria, the governance committee should then conduct a board audit to assess the current skillsets and diversity breakdown. We all know boards need the right people – chair, co-chairs, C-suite and more. And we need them in the right places. But after this we also need to ask whether there are sufficient succession plans in place, or how effective the current leadership is.

Remember, nonprofits need the right people on their boards to achieve the highest performance. But does the work of the board really tie into the mission and values of the nonprofit?

Such board self-assessment is critical governance best practice. All highly effective nonprofit boards leverage this essential tool.

According to the National Council of Nonprofits, any assessment of the board should also include being beware of limiting beliefs. The best assessments take a critical look at nonprofits’ dynamics, especially with regard to people and culture. Boards need the right mix of gender, ethnicity, race, skillsets and more, depending on the nonprofits’ unique needs.

Ultimately, organizations need to hold boards accountable. BoardSource’s Checklist for Top-Level Board Governance Committee is a valuable resource and it explains the roles and responsibilities of the governance committee, which ensures that the board is doing its work effectively.

In addition to conducting self-assessments and enlisting new members, BoardSource suggests enforcing term-of-office limits for board members. Limits ensure new ideas come into an organization, and more members of a community can be rotated in to develop a close relationship with the nonprofit’s cause.

Don’t forget to recruit for diverse members

Once the board’s makeup is assessed, it is still important to identify personnel gaps and create goals and criteria around recruiting for more diverse members. This may seem like a straightforward concept, but often search criteria becomes tunnel-visioned or based on pre-existing notions of where (and for whom), to look. The initial findings of the board audit must be used as the foundation for search and recruitment efforts. It will also help reduce tokenism too.

The right board composition can better fulfill missions

According to BoardSource’s Strategic Board Composition Matrix, high-performing nonprofit boards are both thoughtful and intentional in creating a strategically composed board of directors. While diversity will look different for each organization, the right tactics will ensure a nonprofit board should be able to improve its makeup while still fulfilling its mission too. That’s got to be a win-win situation for everyone.