WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — When Karen Elaine Webster Parks enrolled at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, she learned one thing before classes even started: Most students didn’t look like her.
The daughter of African-American civil-rights activists, who now serves as interim CEO of the Atlanta Women’s Foundation, Parks found she shared neither gender nor race with the majority of her classmates.
“I had to learn early how to succeed in an environment dominated by good ol’ boys,” Parks said Nov. 10 at the North Carolina Gathering of Women Givers at Winston-Salem State University.
After graduation, Parks began working with local government, and spent a term as a Fulton County commissioner.
She was either the first woman or the first African-American in every position she held with the Fulton County government, she said.
At the time, she had no idea what those experiences would mean for her future mission to promote diversity in nonprofit boards.
While serving as the CEO of the Atlanta Civic League, Parks had to merge three local nonprofits to improve their effectiveness. One of the first things she noticed was that the board was not representative of the community it served.
“The average age of this board was 65,” she said. “The average income was six figures. The leaders would be what you’d call the ‘Who’s Who’ of Atlanta.”
Parks set out to convince the board members that promoting diversity would help them empower the community.
“The first thing we needed to do was hold a mirror up to them,” she said. “People are open when you just point out something they may not have seen.”
Soon the board had expanded its membership to women and African-Americans, as well as younger members.
Many people have the misconception that diversity is only about race, Parks said. But other factors deserve consideration as well, including sexual orientation, age and place of residence.
As part of its efforts to diversify, the new board also began to include people from rural areas.
“I like the big city,” Parks said, “but I also like to hear a different voice.”
Two years after beginning to implement diversity efforts, the debt for all three nonprofit groups was retired, and they were able to establish an endowment and reserve. They also tripled their fundraising dollars and increased their visibility in the community.
But this would not be the last time Parks would encounter problems with board diversity. When she became interim CEO of the Atlanta Women’s Foundation, which works to improve the lives of low-income women and girls, the board was composed almost entirely of wealthy white attorneys.
“We have a tendency to just nominate people we know, and they tend to look a lot like us,” Parks said.
In order to bring in more diverse voices, Parks got demographic statistics from the community the foundation served, and set a goal for the board to mirror these demographics.
“Then we went out to the community and said, ‘This is what we’re looking for. Could you help us bring some of these people in?'” she said.
Parks also changed a rule for board membership that required giving $10,000 per year. To incorporate people from lower-income backgrounds, the rule was amended to allow board members to provide $10,000 in fundraising or services.
Now roughly half of the foundation’s board members fall outside the wealthy white category, Parks said.
Last summer, the Atlanta Women’s Foundation gave more than $1 million in grants to nonprofits serving women and girls, bringing its total contributions to over $10 million since its inception.
“We have to walk the walk and talk the talk,” Parks said. “If we’re really talking about an inclusive America, that needs to be reflected in our leadership.”
In the meantime, Parks encourages all board members, regardless of race, religion or gender, to get to know each other outside their regular meetings.
“Some of these silos are really broken when we realize how much we have in common,” she said.