The Case for Board Diversity

As DEI efforts face increased criticism, board diversity has stalled. To get back on track, remember why these efforts have such power in the first place.

This is a tricky time for conversations around board diversity. Organizations generally grasp the importance of broadening the pool of volunteer leaders: It creates space for new ideas, makes organizations more representative of their membership, and helps avoid internal toxicity. But there’s also increasing pushback around board diversity, as part of more vocal complaints around DEI initiatives. 

For instance, last week a federal appeals court announced that it would rehear a challenge to a rule by Nasdaq that the companies it lists disclose their boards’ race and gender composition. Edward Blum, president of the Alliance for Fair Board Recruitment, one of the organizations taking the challenge to court, told CNBC that the rule “promotes racial discrimination and polarizing personal disclosures.”

That’s debatable. But the fact that it’s become part of a debate has shifted the tone around board diversity, and perhaps chilled efforts around it somewhat: A Conference Board survey from late last year found that the percentage of women and racially/ethnically diverse directors has effectively stalled in the past year, mainly due to decreased diversity among new board members. The report notes that the long-term trendline points to overall increased diversity, but the short-term outlook is concerning.  

The percentage of women and racially/ethnically diverse board leaders has effectively stalled in the past year.

What to do? As ever with hot-button topics, it helps to tune out the politicized chatter and focus on first principles: Why do we put an emphasis on board diversity in the first place? In a piece on that subject published last week at the Stanford Social Innovation Review, nonprofit professionals Katie Smith Milway and Susan Wolf Ditkoff point to a few examples from the space about how and why they frame those conversations on their boards. “Leaders who succeeded in the hard work of changing their boardroom culture and growing engagement for all members started with honest conversations, with each board member and senior staff, about why inclusion matters and how it reflects the organization’s values,” they write.

One key to promoting board diversity, they found, is structuring board meetings around strategy more than “stand-and-deliver presentations.” By emphasizing big-picture organizational needs, the need for a wide range of voices naturally becomes part of the work. They cite one excellent generative question boards should ask: “What are board members seeing that we as an organization don’t yet know?” That’s a good, fiduciary-responsibility and foresight question. But it also prompts the board to look at what it’s missing—and who can help fill those gaps. 

On top of that, Milway and Ditkoff recommend another idea: “Bring views of those you seek to help into every board meeting to connect members directly to the work.” They’re writing about the charitable-nonprofit space, but it can be as helpful an idea for the association world, to get a sense of where its efforts are succeeding, and what it might be missing. (There’s also a potential knock-on benefit of identifying future board members as well.)

These ideas aren’t magic fixes. Board structures are complicated; their size, accessibility, pipeline process, promotion mechanisms, nomination process, onboarding process, leadership, and overall culture all have a substantial impact on who gets to participate and how inclusive they’ll ultimately be. But squabbling over whether diversity in itself is worth the while is a dead end. In uncertain times, you want all the input in terms of experience and knowledge you can possibly leverage. You only get that if you make an active effort to acquire it.

The post The Case for Board Diversity appeared first on Associations Now.