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Board Diversity


Diversity is quite the hot-button issue these days.  But diversity is much more than an overused buzz-word, and diversifying your board is an all-hands-on-deck endeavor.

All the research unanimously suggests that diverse boards make smarter decisions, diversify their donor base, and better serve their communities.  The research also shows that the majority of board leadership tends to be homogeneous in composition--over eighty percent white--and more than twenty-five percent of boards lack any people of color.  

The game of leadership is played with many moving variables.  When looking for board members, it is essential to include people of different backgrounds--differing life experiences that are shaped by race, sex, disability, socioeconomic status, industry experience, and even age.  Including those voices on your board is critically important.  All those individual perspectives, life experiences, and professional contacts are important for enriching your board’s decision making, and creating a generational impact for your nonprofit.  

So how then do you go about diversifying your board?  I've got eight steps / suggestions for you:


1: Assess the current status of the board.

Never take your eye off the needed skill areas the board seeks. Do the standard skills assessment, BUT… 

As part of your board assessment, run a diversity audit to see how your board stacks up (and maybe also your entire organization). First, look at the demographic of your board. Then, look at the demographic of your community—the people you serve. The two should match. What groups are under-represented? This isn’t only about race. Think about age, disabilities, and gender-neutrality. If your current status is vastly different from the desired state, ask yourself why such a gap exists.

While you’re at it: 

In addition to a skills assessment, assess for presence and participation. The formula for being a good board member is a known thing. Are people fulfilling their duties?


2: Address what lies under the surface.

Talk it all out. Communicate.

If the conversation is comfortable, you’re doing it wrong.

Are people on the board ready to listen to and welcome different points of view, and move away from “this is how we have always done this?” Don’t assume everyone agrees about what diversity and inclusion mean for the board. Before asking “How do we become more diverse?” boards must ask “Why do we need to become diverse?” Your board should have an open, thoughtful discussion to consider how it and your organization, community, and constituents might benefit from diversity within the board. Equally important, your board should discuss the opportunities that might be missed if it remains homogeneous. Also, you must anticipate and address how the board will react and potentially resolve challenges that arise due to different opinions, approaches, and attitudes.

Questions you should seek to answer:

  • Are people of color (or young people, or disabled people) comfortable serving on the board?
  • Does the board consider issues relating to race and ethnicity when it sets policies and makes decisions for the organization?
  • What could the board do differently to become more inclusive and welcoming?
  • What could the board do differently to address the needs of diverse communities?


3: Make a plan. Get everyone involved.

This is an opportunity for board growth and development. Ideally, it should be something of a celebration. Create a pipeline of candidates. Target skills.

Avoid Tokenism

Be open about your organization’s current level of diversity when recruiting. People want to feel like you’re recruiting them because of their skills and passion for your mission. Focusing on the skills and talents of your ideal candidate, but prioritizing those who are underrepresented in the name of equity, will be much more successful than simply saying “We need a [insert demographic group here].” 

Remember: You’re not filling a quota. You’re changing a culture. All board members get treated equally and expect the same from everyone.

Target Skills, Not Colors

When you have identified promising candidates, find ways to connect with them and cultivate their interest. The board’s commitment to inclusiveness needs to be articulated and clarified early in the recruitment process. Discuss it as well as board member expectations and responsibilities. Tell prospective members why they are wanted and needed, invite questions, elicit their interest, and find out if they are prepared to serve and lead.


4: Be proactive

Yes, you should comb through your rolodex and start grooming prospects. But there’s a potential pitfall here: People tend to know people who are similar to them. You might have to reach farther to keep the board from remaining homogenous. There are additional ways you can expand your reach:

  • Post online on websites like or, and take advantage of LinkedIn’s targeting options.
  • Blast your social media accounts with the open position, and ask your employees and members to share it too.
  • Ask local organizations or associations who work with the communities you want to recruit for assistance.
  • Ask partnering or neighboring organizations who have more diversity within their organization about their strategies for board recruitment.

While you’re at it:

What is the racial equity policy around your board recruitment? Is everyone on board with it? Include a statement of inclusivity on your next job post or board posting — and make sure you mean it.

Plus, remember that board giving requirements can be a barrier for some groups. If you’re primarily serving lower-income demographics, or want them to be represented, you’ll need to be aware of this (and consider scrapping it).


5: Monitor & Measure

Take the opportunity to do informal reassessments whenever needed. Are you meeting your goals? What needs to happen to stay on track? How can you help each other be accountable for reaching these goals?


6: Make diversity a part of your mission – not just your mission statement.

What is the racial equity policy around your board recruitment?

An explicit commitment to diversity made readily available on your website and materials (particularly anything related to hiring) could help attract those you are looking for. Amending your bylaws to state that a certain percentage of your board must come from the population you serve can also help reinforce your commitment. This suggests a commitment to action, rather than just giving lip service to the idea of diversity.


7: Ask your members what’s up.

Ask the people who are served by your nonprofit who THEY recommend as board members. They know the challenges they face, and they may even know who is best equipped to handle them. When they make suggestions, ask for an introduction. Send out a quick survey to members you know are engaged with your organization. Or better yet, identify events that attract the people you’re looking to recruit, or go to their communities and start providing value, before having authentic, in-person conversations about why their involvement is critical. Find a way to directly ask them if they know anyone who might be a good fit to join your board. Maybe it’s time for a focus group? Town hall? Or maybe a quick conversation as they visit your facilities?


8: If you’re using a search firm or a consultant…

Tell the consultant/firm that for every candidate (that appears to meet the qualifications sought) they bring to your board for consideration, that they should also bring a board candidate who the consultant thinks is totally different than what the nonprofit is looking for. (This is what I try to do if I'm the consultant.) The objective here is to defeat the patterns that result in homogeneity, and it keeps the consultant from reinforcing those old patterns as a means of unconsciously keeping their clients happy. 


9: Contact Nonprofit Snapshot

I know, I said eight, but I'd be remiss if I didn't say to you: As always, don't hesitate to contact Nonprofit Snapshot if we may be of service with your recruitment efforts.