Confronting the Diversity Dilemma: 10 Strategies for Building an Inclusive Board

By Susan Fields, CFRE

November 9, 2017, Scandinavia House, NYC

As fundraisers and nonprofit leaders we have been conditioned to put the highest priority on fulfilling the mission of the organizations that we serve. We might also consider, however, that nonprofits have an equal or greater commitment to their country and world in fostering the values of justice, inclusion, and integrity in all matters.

The Panel:

Moderator: Saundra Thomas
VP of Community Affairs, WABC-TV

“Imagine what our country would be like if some of the people were allowed to rise to the top.”

Anne Wallestad

President & CEO, BoardSource


“If we want things to change, we need to
look at board recruitment.”

Cecilia Clarke, President & CEO

Brooklyn Community Foundation


“The greatest problem in philanthropy
is the emphasis on power.”

Margarita Rosa, Esq.

“People do not want to be recruited as a token spokesperson for a specific group."



According to BoardSource’s 2017 Leading with Intent study, 84% of US board members are Caucasian with 27% of boards reporting 100% white membership. Although 65% of executives and board chairs expressed dissatisfaction with this state of affairs, the contradictory fact that only 24% place a priority on demographics in recruitment indicates that nonprofit leadership is having difficulty in putting their expressed values into practice. 


There is no doubt that this problem is representative of the US economic system whereby a small, predominantly white, portion of the population owns a disproportionate amount of the country’s assets creating an enormous racial and ethnic wealth gap which continues to increase. The nonprofit arena which traditionally views the primary role of the board as fiduciary has unwittingly supported a culture of institutionalized elitism that has subtly barred minorities from fully participating in organizations that serve their communities. 


So how do nonprofits recruit board members that better represent the people that they serve? And, at the same time, how do CEO’s and development staff adjust their board fundraising paradigm while continuing to raise the dollars needed to fulfill their mission? 


This AFP-NYC educational program, provided practical approaches for Confronting the Diversity Dilemma through the creation of dynamic and diverse boards that will ensure the nonprofit sector’s relevance in the coming decades:


Ten Strategies for Building an Inclusive Board

  1. Assess your board demographics. If your organization’s mission serves individuals that are predominantly black and Latino and your board is 90% white, it’s time to consider the benefits of creating a more diverse board. Nonprofits that serve a mostly white population will also benefit from inclusion as our country’s population becomes increasingly multicultural. 
  2. Educate your Board. The process of implementing diversity will go more smoothly if your board is included in the dialogue. Forming an ad hoc committee to facilitate this process through designing group discussions and an action plan is a good way to begin. More open communication will allow board members to consider whether its practices—such as strict Robert’s rules and limited time for relationship building—might be turning off potential candidates. 
  3. Prepare for resistance.  Although they may be unaware of it, most people have prejudices which reach back into childhood. Consider having members take a bias assessment such as Google’s, How to Spot Unconscious Bias followed by discussions where members can express concerns about change and how it will impact their role.  
  4. Make a plan. Create a report which includes information about your organization’s community and beneficiaries, the board’s vision for inclusiveness, the benefits of diversity in governance, the goals to be achieved, and the strategies through which they will be accomplished. 
  5. Rethink the role of your board. Although all board members should be expected to make a financial commitment to your organization, it is time that nonprofits reduce the influence of money and power in recruitment and seek a more balanced approach to adding new members who can bring a more expansive world view to your nonprofit’s mission. 
  6. Avoid tokenism. People do not want to serve on a board as a representative for a specific group. For this reason it’s best to recruit diverse members in clusters. In order to change the culture of a board, it usually requires a gradual turnover of at least 30% of the membership.
  7. Search for Candidates.  Some of the best places to look are: local nonprofit boards, community leaders, Chamber of Commerce and Rotary Clubs, volunteer board services, community organizations that focus on racial or ethnic groups, local businesses and corporations, search firms, staff members, and Board Member Connect on LinkedIn.
  8. Cultivate and connect with perspective members.  Get a clear understanding of the lens through which perspective members view the world and its compatibility with your organization’s mission. In addition to clarifying expectations and responsibilities, learn about their talents, interests, special skills, the work they do, other boards on which they serve, and what inspires them about your organization. 
  9. Involve new members.  All too often boards attract talented individuals with no specific plan as to how their abilities will be utilized—creating boredom, a sense of uselessness, and low retention rates. Determine in advance the projects and committees on which first year members will serve and the goals that they will be working toward.
  10. Tell the world! Draft a policy statement for your nonprofit’s website and promotional materials that highlights its commitment to diversity and inclusion in its staffing, leadership, and governance.  



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