Connections for Success



Diversity on Not-For-Profit Boards
Kenneth Tornheim

Board members are your organization’s ambassadors to the constituencies you serve. But when someone from the outside takes a look inside, does she or he see a reflection of your community, or are the images a mismatch?

Identifying the Problem

In its infancy, a not-for-profit organization may simply want to get the word out about its mission. So recruiting as many loved ones, friends and friends of friends as possible may be the most efficient approach. However, as time passes, the not-for-profit might find that it is represented solely by one race, sex, religion or economic class.

Such lack of diversity can signal an underlying problem: A disconnect from the community. A not-for-profit can improve its funding and program effectiveness when it reflects the population it serves, as well as the community in which it operates.

Mixing Things Up

What is considered “healthy” diversity will vary from organization to organization. But think of it like this: The more diverse your board is in attributes, the more diverse it will be in thoughts and ideas. This diversity can come in many forms — physical, societal or economic. The goal is to mirror the population you serve in your appointees to the board.

If your bylaws limit the number of board members you can have at any given time, you might consider amending them to include the organization’s commitment to board diversity. Be very careful, though, that the size of your board does not become unwieldy. There are other ways to commit to well-balanced leadership and community input (see the sidebar, “Other Paths to Diversity”).

Assessing Skills and Demographics

The first step to a great mix is to ask board members to write their own profiles. In the instructions you give — or on the form you provide — include the attributes your organization considers important, such as skill sets and a particular demographic. From this information, you will be able to see what the board may lack.

Look at the group as a whole and assess where the organization lies on the diversity continuum. Imagine a scale from one to five, with five displaying your not-for-profit’s ideal diversity. Assess your members and give yourself a score. The diversity, or lack thereof, should be obvious. You may find, for example, that the board is underrepresented by females, persons of color, young adults or individuals with a financial background.

Getting the Word Out

Identifying that your board needs more diversity is easy. Figuring out what to do about it can be more difficult. Start with your current board members. Communicate with them the need for diversity — if they have not already vocalized the need themselves. Ask members to dip into their personal and professional networks to help find the right individuals for your organization.

Also gather input from your community and the organizations that serve it. Your chamber of commerce might be a place to start, but there are many options. If your organization lacks the perspective of young professionals, for example, contact a local young professionals group in your area or recent college graduates. Does your organization need diversity from a financial or legal perspective? Express your need to one of your ORBA team members.  We may know of individuals with finance backgrounds who might be a good match for your organization.

Seeking External help

If you are having trouble finding qualified board members, try a board placement service. Some communities have board training programs for professionals. At the completion of the program, the “graduates” are invited to meet and mingle with organizations seeking new board members. This is a great service for both the new board member and the organization.

Professional associations also can be a good recruitment resource. Some state CPA societies, for example, help match accountants with not-for-profit organizations that need volunteers. You also could seek out a not-for-profit consultant that can assist with board placement.

Opportunities, Opportunities

Building an effective board of directors should be a challenge that your organization with a positive outlook faces. Every time a board member resigns, an opportunity to give your organization the wings of diversity emerges.

Sidebar: Other Paths to Diversity

Suppose your organization wants to add diversity to its leadership to better mirror the community or communities it serves. But the organization also does not want to increase its board size for fear of losing efficiency. Until a member of your board ends his or her term, you can beef up diversity by appointing new people to these alternative structures now:

An Advisory Board
Often considered an “informal” board, an advisory board can bring additional qualifications and demographics to your organization. An advisory board is also the perfect training ground for potential leaders.

Board Committees or Subcommittees
Special projects or areas of interest may warrant recruiting more volunteers to donate time and energy to your organization. If the organization is national, for example, board committees might serve the interests of particular regions or chapters.

Focus Groups
Although not a standing structure, focus groups are extremely useful in collecting the opinions of particular demographic groups on targeted topics.

Forward Thinking