A Path to Improve Board Diversity

A new report shows that nonprofits still struggle to broaden the range of people who participate in governance. Change begins with an open conversation about challenges.

Four years after a very vocal and intense public conversation around diversity, how far have we come? A new report points to some positives, but also suggests that there’s plenty of work to be done.

The State of Diversity in the U.S. Nonprofit Sector [PDF], released last month by Candid, is based on an analysis of nearly 60,000 organizations. Its main takeaway is that while many organizations have addressed diversity in their organizations, nonprofit leadership is predominantly white and male, especially at larger groups: while 47 percent of all staff identify as white, 70 percent of CEOs and 66 percent of board members do.

As the report points out, DEI efforts only go so far when they’re decoupled from leadership opportunities. “Diversity alone is ultimately insufficient,” says the report. “Our diversity must be coupled with equitable opportunities and resources, and inclusion in conversations, decision making, and leadership. An important step toward improving equity is examining who currently has access to power—through leadership roles and/or financial resources.”

Diversity alone is ultimately insufficient. Diversity must be coupled with equitable opportunities and resources.

In light of that, it’s worth paying particular attention to the report’s dedicated section on boards, which sheds some light on how power is distributed in nonprofitdom. After all, as the report notes, “boards often make some of the most critical decisions within organizations, including approving budgets and resources, overseeing legal and ethical issues, setting strategic direction, and hiring the next CEO.”

On this front, boards do tend to be more diverse than corner-office leadership. In the aggregate, nonprofit boards have achieved gender parity, with an average of five women and five men. But organizations with budgets greater than $1 million tend to have a majority of men on their boards; the trend line is similar when it comes to race, LGBTQ+, and disability status. 

Discussions around board diversity are complicated, particularly at associations. Beyond the matters discussed in the Candid report, it can also encompass geographic location, area of practice within an industry, practitioner versus supplier roles, and more. But the stakes are also straightforward: Who serves in key leadership roles makes a statement about who has power in an organization and who doesn’t, and diverse organizations are less prone to the blind spots that centralized power dynamics create. 

That’s why the increased criticism that diversity and DEI efforts have faced recently to some extent miss the point. Tokenism in any diversity effort is a risk, but it’s not a foregone conclusion. Successful diversity efforts begin with open conversations about who’s not being heard, and whether current leadership structures tend to silence particular voices. There’s no one right way to improve board diversity, but there’s a clear wrong one—avoiding a discussion about an organization’s blind spots.

So unsurprisingly, one of Candid’s main recommendations is that boards start talking. “Board members set much of the vision and direction for nonprofits, and therefore board meetings are an important place to hear from diverse perspectives,” says the report. “At the same time, data suggests that this is the level of the organization where diversity is often lacking.”

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