Is your board ready to advance equity?

4 Signs that your board is ready for deeper equity work, and what to do if your board isn’t.

Written by: Rick Moyers

Date: February 21, 2019

For more than 20 years, survey data has highlighted the persistent lack of diversity on nonprofit and foundation boards in the U.S.

Perhaps in reaction to that, a significant number of nonprofit and foundation chief executives say they are dissatisfied with the current composition of their boards and would like to do better.

As a former BoardSource staff member, co-author of early research on board composition and, since 2012, a member of the BoardSource board of directors, I often get approached by executives and board members who say they are ready to work on diversity and want to know how to get started.

My answer, grounded in experience as a board member and foundation executive, is: Boards that are serious about diversity need to prepare themselves for a conversation and a self-examination that is broader than brainstorming about how to get more people of color, more people with differing abilities or a broader age representation onto the board.

Diversity is only one aspect of a larger conversation about equity and power. Lack of diversity is just a presenting symptom – the part of the iceberg that shows above water, signaling much deeper systemic and structural issues that need to be understood and addressed before organizations can tackle board diversity in a meaningful and authentic way.

A growing number of boards and executives seem willing to have those conversations. But many boards still aren’t ready.

Attempting to force the issue because staff recognize the need, or as a response to external pressures and criticisms, may do more harm than good, sparking confusion, division or relapse into inertia.

4 Ways to know if your board is ready for deeper work in pursuit of equity

1. Multiple champions.

Ideally, at least a few board members should:

  • Understand this work.
  • Believe it’s important for the board to engage.
  • Be willing to help bring their peers along.

One champion won’t be enough. Board sentiment can shift depending on who shows up for the meeting, and it’s unfair to ask a single board member to bear a disproportionate share of responsibility to move these conversations forward – particularly if that board member is a person of color.

2. Openness to learning.

Board members may be at very different places in their understanding and personal journeys around equity and structural and institutional racism.

Those who are open to learning can find enormous benefit in processing information with a group they know and trust.

But a few board members who are resistant to learning, or don’t believe conversations about equity are relevant to mission, can easily derail a process and prevent progress.

3. Willingness to commit significant time.

Board members are often volunteers with busy lives, and some may come from professional settings in which they are accustomed to faster timelines and more focused decision-making processes.

Reluctance or unrealistic expectations about the time involved should be a warning signal.

4. Alignment with broader organizational goals.

Boards operate within a larger organizational context. A board’s work on equity, diversity and inclusion should not be undertaken in isolation from the organization’s larger direction and goals.

A board commitment to equity will be of limited value if that commitment doesn’t flow through to an organization’s broader culture and day-to-day work.

Similarly, efforts by staff to move an equity agenda can only go so far if an organization’s governing body is unwilling to approve policy decisions that support that commitment.

What should you do if your board isn’t ready to take on equity?

For boards that aren’t ready, here are some suggestions for executives, board chairs and governance committee chairs:

1. Have strategic, 1-on-1 conversations with board members to lay the groundwork for future conversations.

2. Look for opportunities to bring equity champions into key leadership roles, including chair or vice chair, members of the governance committee or governance committee chair.

3. Encourage board members to attend conferences, workshops or events sponsored by other organizations that are further along.

4. Recruit incoming board members with a demonstrated personal commitment to equity. Be honest about where your board is, how you hope it could shift and what role you think they could play in changing the board.

5. Take the readiness assessment in NCRP’s Power Moves assessment guide, and explore recommended resources from partners such as ABFE and the Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity.

Authentic board engagement around equity can’t be forced or faked, and boards can’t do the necessary work unless they’re ready.

But I know from experience that boards can change, and that change doesn’t need to take years of effort.

Accurately reading the signals of readiness and carefully planting the seeds for change can prepare boards to do this work, which should be a required prerequisite for conversations about diversity.

Rick Moyers is a philanthropic consultant, board member of BoardSource, and former vice president of programs and communications with the Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer Foundation. Follow @Rick_Moyers on Twitter.

Power Moves