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ASU Lodestar Center Blog

Board diversity strategies to help nonprofits achieve success

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With the recent pandemic, civil unrest and racism conversations front and center, nonprofit organizations are working overtime to serve communities deeply affected by these issues. On top of it all is the reality that the diversity needle has not moved much in board of directors’ positions at nonprofit organizations. A 2017 survey from Board Source shows that 84% of members on nonprofit boards identify as Caucasian, which does not sway far from the 2015 survey.

A board of directors is a legal requirement to establish and maintain a nonprofit organization and helps to ensure the organization achieves its stated mission and meets the expectations of stakeholders, according to Nick Price. Yet, many nonprofit boards do not reflect the communities in which those same organizations are serving.

As our country continues to diversify, our nonprofits should strive to achieve a level of diversity on their boards that meets that of their current constituents and community. What can organizations do to amplify their diversity? The following five recommendations can help a nonprofit establish diversity, equity, and inclusion strategies that can help with overall success.

Promote diversity and inclusion throughout the organization

Nonprofit leaders should have ongoing discussions on inclusion and diversity, establish best practices, and develop common understanding of the meaning and definition of diversity and inclusion. Being able to see people who look like them on boards and in leadership roles can only encourage a future generation of diverse leaders to help promote nonprofit missions. “Inclusive organizations create systems that encourage ongoing intellectual and stylistic disruptions of the status quo in service of an underlying organizational mission. In high-performing, flexible organizations, this openness to productive change–inclusion–becomes the status quo,” write Scott Nielsen and Helena Huang in the National Civic Review.

Develop an organizational diversity and inclusion statement for staff and board

A statement of diversity and inclusion that all staff and board are bought into and held accountable for can help keep diversity front and center in board recruitment and development. A board diversity policy amplifies what is expected of board members and describes how people who have been historically marginalized can participate effectively as board members, as mentioned by Kathleen Buse, Ruth Sessler Bernstein and Diana Bilimoria  in their article "The Influence of Board Diversity." A statement can also aid in recruitment and retention of board members.

Complete an annual self-assessment to determine strengths and growth opportunities for boards

Board assessment tools comes in all shapes and sizes, and may include questions about the organizations mission, strategic direction, board meetings, supporting the CEO/ED and more. An assessment tool can help identify strengths, challenges and gaps and help the board hold themselves accountable to reaching benchmarks and goals. Completing a self-assessment helps the board look internally at the board itself, reflect on both individual and shared responsibilities of its members, increase teamwork, clarify board and staff expectations, and help determine areas of responsibility that need attention. The Council on Nonprofits has samples to review.

Examine current goals and objectives around board diversity and create benchmarks

Nonprofit organizations that invest in training, creating diversity and inclusion statements and promoting these values to the organization as a whole, can help track success and fill in gaps when there are challenges. Putting specific and measurable goals into an annual work plan will hold board and staff leadership accountable, and will also create benchmarks in which progression can be measured. Laura Tancredi-Baese, CEO of Home Start, Inc. in San Diego, said that once her organization put board diversity strategies in their strategic plan, they started seeing real changes to the make-up of their board.

Invest in training

Diversity and inclusion training will help board members recognize cultural language, understand the diversity of the communities served, and strengthen cultural competency. Nonprofit Business Advisor suggests that training helps people understand their day-to-day peer interactions, and also raises awareness of different belief systems, perspectives and cultures.

Training helps people not only understand their role as board members, but including diversity, equity and inclusion training helps board members see how they fit within the bigger picture and shows that the organization is committed to strengthening their cultural competency.

By following the five strategies listed above, a nonprofit can diversify their board and set themselves up for future success.

Jen Nation is a graduate of the Master of Nonprofit Leadership and Management program at Arizona State University. Jen currently serves at the executive director of Olivewood Gardens and Learning Center, a nonprofit located in National City, California, on an 8-acre outdoor classroom which inspires youth and adults to be healthy and active through organic gardening, environmental stewardship and nutrition education. Jen is a visionary leader who has over 25 years of experience in the nonprofit field developing strategic relationships, connecting people to causes they care about, advocating for health equity, environmental justice and rights for women and girls. In her free time Jen enjoys any and all outdoor activities, gardening and visiting the local farmers market. Jen earned a bachelor’s of recreation management from University of Northern Iowa.

Jennifer Nation


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