Board Diversity as a Social Change Agent – Part 1: How It Works

Six people from diverse ethnic backgrounds sit around a table and two are shaking hands across the table
Jeb Banner, Boardable CEO

Special to the Philanthropy Journal

By Jeb Banner, Boardable CEO

This is the first in a two-part series from Jeb Banner about board diversity. 

“Board diversity” is one of those buzz words you hear regularly in nonprofit circles. We all know the general reasons why it is desirable for the nonprofit, but what if board diversity could be a change agent for individual board members? What if more inclusive board recruitment could actually change our communities?

The Classic Problem

It’s obvious that there is a diversity problem on nonprofit boards. According to the 2017 “Leading with Intent” report by BoardSource, 90% of board chairs are Caucasian and 84% of board members are as well. Additionally, 58% of board chairs and just over half of board members are male. There isn’t a lot of data around socioeconomic classes of board members, but traditionally nonprofits seek out well-connected, prosperous community members for their boards.

The causes of this perpetuation are simple enough. An affluent (albeit well-intentioned) white man looks for new board member recruits, and he turns to his colleagues and friends—often other affluent white men. It’s what I call “fishing from the same waters.” If a board keeps looking to the same pool of candidates, true diversity of any kind is virtually impossible.

Isolation Is Bad for Everyone

To take a step back, it’s crucial to examine the benefits an individual receives  when he or she sits on a nonprofit board. On a regular basis, a board member has close contact with leaders in his or her community. A board of 10 directors translates into immeasurable job referrals, professional advice, and the kind of word-of-mouth opportunities that only happen in person. If the majority of board members and board chairs are white, there is a whole network of professional, community, governmental, and other connections that are closed off from other nonprofit board members in town.

What I’ve seen happen in the Indianapolis nonprofit community where I have started two nonprofits is we end up having separate cities within the actual city. There’s the upper-middle class Caucasian nonprofit board members, another whole ecosystem of upper-middle class black nonprofits, a community of Latino nonprofit board members, and so on. Often, there is very little interaction between the cities. In my wife Jenny Banner’s work with nonprofits, a black man noted to her, “I don’t need introductions to black boards. I already have connections there. I want access to other boards.”

Board Diversity Is a Win-Win for Individuals and Boards

Achieving a significant degree of board diversity has lasting effects for the minority board members and their networks, who now have a conduit to the previously isolated white city. These benefits flow both ways. Remember that “fishing in the same waters” idea from before? It can have a positive connotation once we have made progress on board diversity. Suddenly, those waters where our more diverse board members look for new board member recruits is expanding our network instead of restricting it. Not only are there more inroads onto the traditional boards for individuals, those same roads travel out into the other communities and improve the health of the nonprofit by expanding the board’s breadth of knowledge. This results in better perspectives on community needs, as well as a more robust experience base for solving problems.

Board Service as a Social Change Agent

By connecting cities of nonprofit boards, we not only bring more people to the collection of advantages that have traditionally been at white, male boardroom tables, we strengthen our nonprofits with a wider network of supporters. It is past time we open the door to the boardroom wide and watch our communities thrive in a new way.

 

Stay tuned for Board Diversity as a Social Change Agent – Part 2: How to Open the Door


Jeb is the founder and CEO of Boardable, a nonprofit board management software provider. He is also the founder of two nonprofits, The Speak Easy and Musical Family Tree, as well as a board member of United Way Central Indiana and ProAct. Jeb is based in Indianapolis, Indiana.

Boardable is an online board management portal that centralizes communication, document storage, meeting planning, and everything else that goes into running a board of directors. Founded in 2016 by nonprofit leaders and founders, Boardable has a mission to improve board engagement for nonprofits. Boardable is based in Indianapolis, Indiana.

 

 

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