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Cynder Sinclair: Expanding Your Nonprofit Board’s Diversity

While attending the Partnership for Excellence conference during the second week of April, I heard multiple executive directors and board chairs lamenting their ability to diversify their boards.

Theirs seems to be a pervasive frustration with many nonprofit folks. Boards want to be more diversified, but they don’t know how to do it.

Shake Up Your Routine

Diversifying is inherently challenging. Why? Because, as humans, we tend to surround ourselves with people like ourselves. When we, as board members, try to think of someone we know to serve on the board, the person ends up being like us. The result: no diversity.

We need to move outside our usual routine, beyond our typical scope of acquaintances, past our everyday haunts.

One time when I wanted to add board members from the burgeoning tech field, I introduced myself to someone I met at a chamber mixer who worked for a new technology company in town.

When I asked if he or anyone in his company would be interested in finding out more about serving on my board, he was thrilled. He added great value to our board for many years by helping us understand and value technology in our organization.

Are you looking for greater age diversity? Speak with someone from the Young Professionals Club or go to your local bank and ask if they have any younger employees they are grooming for management.

I guarantee your search for board members will be greeted with real enthusiasm. Nowadays, you can also find younger, emerging leaders at chamber mixers.

Define the Basics

Let’s be clear about why we want to diversify our board — and what we want that diversification to look like. Blue Avocado, an online resource for nonprofits, gives four reasons nonprofit boards might want to diversify.

» A mission reason: We believe the nonprofit sector as a whole should be improving life for all communities.

» A business reason: The nonprofit sector needs people of color and others as donors, as volunteers, as workers, as leaders and as customers, funders and patrons. The sector is also less likely to be attacked and more able to defend itself when it has a greater cross-section of the population in its leadership.

» A responsible corporation reason: Just as every sector has a responsibility towards the environment, every sector has a responsibility for fair employment, for community-wide prosperity and for making services and products accessible to people with disabilities.

» A definitional reason: Community nonprofits are characterized by being part of their communities as well as serving their communities. Holding ourselves accountable to our communities requires our sector as a whole be accountable, as well, including by involving people of color in our leadership.

Think Pluralism Rather Than Diversity

The term diversity focuses our attention on how we are different — what separates us. The opposite side of that coin is pluralism, one of my favorite words. Pluralism says let’s draw the circle as wide as we can to include people from every walk of life.

Instead of trying to find people who are different from us, let’s make a list of traits and expertise our board needs to represent our community and those we serve. Include various ages, ethnicities, geographies, skill sets, races, community connections, experiences and any additional categories you want to consider for a well-rounded board.

Dedicated board members typically bring far more to the table than just their expertise in a given area. The value of a board member is not only what’s in his or her head but also the networks and the reputational capital they bring that allow them to contribute deeply to the organization. You want a wide range of thoughts, experiences, knowledge and perspectives.

A new report from the Urban Institute shows that while 57 percent of California’s population consists of people of color, just 28 percent of nonprofit board members reflect that demographic reality.

So maybe your board would like to include more Latinos or other people of color. Speak with a school principal or someone from the Latino Coalition or the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce to ask for referrals to individuals who may be interested in board service.

You want people from all walks of life in your community to say, “When I look at you, I see me.” When the broader community feels included and represented on your board, they will be more likely to contribute to your mission.

When your board is making decisions using wide-ranging points of view, its decisions will be wiser and more effective. If your board takes a pluralistic approach to recruitment, it will become a world-class board.

Move Beyond the Usual Suspects

One method that I’ve had great success with is the Blue Ribbon method of board recruitment. Draw up a list of twenty well-connected people of the type you would want on the board, but who you suspect wouldn’t join because they are too busy. Examples might be funders, community leaders or nonprofit executives.

Call them and ask them to come to a one-time meeting over lunch where they’ll learn about the organization and what you’re seeking in board members. At the lunch, explain the mission, business and other reasons why your organization is seeking to diversify and be explicit about what you’re looking for people to do.

Ask each to suggest three individuals. The next day, call up the nominees and begin by explaining who referred them to you.

Remember, It’s Your Responsibility to Ensure a Diversified Board

An underlying and crucial reason why boards typically neglect recruitment is that it’s unclear where the buck stops in getting board recruitment to happen, and happen well.

If the board and its nominating committee is not recruiting the people the organization needs — and if you are the board chair — it’s your responsibility to get that committee rolling or to disband and reconstitute it.

If the board chair isn’t doing his or her job on this, and you are the executive director, it is your job to figure out what you need to do.

It’s not enough to sigh and complain about the board. If you are the executive, ask yourself: what can I do to strengthen our board’s recruitment and composition?

Strengthen Your Entire Organization

Composition of an organization’s board is one of the most critical issues a nonprofit can address, and it takes vigilance and diligence.

Spend time with your board’s nominating committee to identify the types of expertise your organization needs. Then create a matrix categorizing these areas.

Look for the gaps in membership, and then make a clear action plan for recruiting the best people you can find.

It won’t be a quick or straightforward process, but it will lead to excellence.

— Dr. Cynder Sinclair is a consultant to nonprofits and founder and CEO of Nonprofit Kinect. She has been successfully leading nonprofits for 30 years and holds a doctorate in organizational management. To read her blog, click here. To read her previous articles, click here. She can be contacted at 805.689.2137 or .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). The opinions expressed are her own.

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