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

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. You can read the first installation here.

We’ve already established the reasons that board diversity is the healthiest path forward for boards. Where it gets interesting is when we start to think of diverse board recruiting as a path for social transformation. Sure, boards benefit from more robust representation, but what we don’t always talk about are the benefits for the board members as individuals. By including more people in the circles of influence, power, money, and professional success that are already traditionally sitting at boardroom tables, we can start to see a ripple effect in our communities.

That all sounds great, but how do we actually make it happen?

Assuming boards want to be more diverse, what is holding them back? Let’s look at the barriers that keep more diverse would-be board members from board membership, and some ways that we can minimize those barriers.

Perception of Exclusivity

In my nonprofit founding and board member experiences, I have discovered that one of the biggest hesitations for less traditional board member candidates is a perception that “board membership is for rich people.” They fear that unless they have very deep pockets, there is nothing they can contribute as a board member. Can you imagine anything more intimidating than working with a group of strangers that you were somewhat hesitant to join in the first place, only to be snubbed for not having enough money?

This is a difficult barrier to break down, and it will take some time. Unfortunately, there are still some nonprofits with the unspoken requirement of large personal donations expected from board members. Boards who want to encourage more diverse candidates need to be explicit about their expectations. In your board member recruitment, be sure to list all the non-monetary ways you hope new members will contribute. Traits you could include might be experience with or knowledge of the population served, expertise in a certain professional area, geographical familiarity, enthusiasm for event planning, etc. Your goal is to get potential board members thinking creatively and positively about what value they can bring besides money.

The Invisible “Front Door”

One area where almost all nonprofit boards can improve is showing potential board members the proverbial “front door” for board membership. Are there upcoming opportunities with your board? How can individuals apply for board membership and other committees?

It is time for nonprofits to get more creative about how they put the word out on board openings. Rather than relying on word of mouth from existing board members (traditionally this is where lack of diversity stems from), try spreading the word about board opportunities through new channels. Partner with faith institutions, universities, related nonprofits, and community foundations in the areas you serve to spread the message. These groups will likely be happy to offer your opportunities to their audiences, as well as have a much wider variety of local representatives for your board. Your organization helps the community, and the community can strengthen the organization’s board.

In addition, it is crucial that nonprofits have a system in place for processing their new influx of board member candidates. If you’re going to break down the invisible barriers to board membership, you need to be prepared to introduce them to the organization, comfortably assess their fit as a board member, and have alternative roles available to engage these new people if board membership isn’t appropriate at that moment. Part of encouraging new types of people to pursue board membership is to make the experience as welcoming and frictionless as possible.

The benefits to nonprofit boards of diversifying their membership are obvious, but what can really change our communities is the effect of board diversity on individuals and their circles. By being innovative in the ways we describe board membership, spread the word about opportunities, and introduce new stakeholders to the organization, nonprofits can be leaders in the diversification of board membership.


About Jeb Banner:

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.

About Boardable:

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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