Seeing the Elephant in the Room:
Low Board Diversity and How to Change It
I recently read BoardSource’s excellent study “Leading with Intent” which just came out. https://boardsource.org/ Please download it! High praise to BoardSource for this quality study that points out the elephant in the room too many avoid noticing. It focuses on many aspects of nonprofit Board’s work but the section that struck me and resonated with my background was the findings around Board diversity. This is a historic and chronic issue that I recall being raised 20 years ago!
It shows that 90% of nonprofits Board Chairs, Executive Directors are white. That 84% of Board Members are white. I have a long background in working in fundraising amongst Latino’s in the US. Especially in Major Giving so let me talk about the area I know better. I have studied nonprofit Board’s across the US, even in states with huge Latino populations there is little Board representation. According to this study its 3-5%. I have seen the statistic for California years ago of 3% Board membership for Latino’s. Sorry, but that’s appalling in a state where about 40% of the population is Latino. There is also similar under representation amongst staff, especially senior staff. I don’t have the stats but I know it’s a chronic issue. I know from my 30+ years in development that Latino’s in development aren’t at representative levels.
What’s even more amazing is the verbal concern nonprofit leader’s show for this huge problem and a corresponding lack of concrete action. Of Executive Directors 61% and among Board Chairs 41% were dissatisfied with their Board diversity. Note the 20 point difference? Both numbers tell you people take it seriously. So why hasn’t the needle moved?
Years ago I worked with a major institution in the Florida. They had a good fundraising program and Board of Trustees of 30 members. What’s amazing is they didn’t have one Latino board member! They had had one 5 years prior but not since. Yet Latino’s were 23% of the population? Plus there are very wealthy and powerful Latino’s right there in their community? When I raised this issue in front of the Board it was a concern but not a big one. It was on the long list of priorities. In their minds they had diversity. They had women on the Board, they had different industries, and they had “old money” and a new entrepreneur. For people whose circles, professional and personal are not diverse, they can’t see the issue.
This study wisely points out that a “Boards composition impacts how it leads”. It points out that non diverse Boards have “blind spots created by a lack of racial and ethnic diversity are particularly concerning, as they may result in strategies and plans that ineffectively address societal challenges and inequities, or even reinforce them”. Right on.
I am a development officer so I see the lost revenue. If you’re not engaging Latino’s in Florida in leadership or philanthropy you’re leaving money on the table. More than you would think. In California show me an institution that is engaging Latino Major Donors? That has six and seven figure Latino individual donors? One will struggle to find them. We are almost 40% of the population here in California, with historic income growth and professional advancement yet institutions run by white people simply don’t see it. I believe this is not intentional, this just isn’t’ there world. There is a long standing assumption that Latino’s aren’t philanthropic. What data is out there shows this is nonsense. Latino’s simply are not asked or approached. The racial composition of a Board of Directors might be a major factor as to why philanthropy rarely crosses the color line?
So from a dollars and sense perspective, Board Diversity is essential for survival and growth in many parts of the US today. And to properly serve your community, move your cause forward and raise more money diversity isn’t a luxury.
The solution to poor Board Diversity is three fold.
Acknowledge you have a problem, identify your ideal board and do your research!
The study says “Strategic board composition does not happen on its own. Boards must define what the ideal board composition looks like — not just in terms of diversity, but also in expertise, experience, and networks — and then be vigilant about finding it through focused and disciplined board recruitment.”
Great quote. Let me add that I want people to avoid tokens. Just because you have a person of color who will join your Board doesn’t make that person the right person. Recruit the successful, philanthropic, connected people of color who loves your organization.
Acknowledging your Board has a problem maybe the most difficult step because you’re asking people to leave their comfort zone and ask them to look in the mirror. Everyone loves “diversity” but few understand what it entails to engage another demographic. Too often Boards have loose recruitment practices based on personal networks and not on solid strategic thinking and research. You get Board’s that “look alike” and belong to the same social circles. Going outside of those circles, engaging other cultures takes courage.
This is where Prospect Research comes to the rescue.
What’s Prospect Research? It’s fundraising. It’s a job inside of many Development teams, like Major Gifts Officer. It’s also what Prospect Researchers do professionally. Their job is to identify the optimal people Development Officers should be engaging. In the for profit world this is done all the time in sales. Sadly, not many Board Members are familiar with the complexity of Development work. And the most hidden part of that work is Prospect Research. Even seasoned Development Officers won’t talk to their Board about that work. Why?
All of this shame and hand wringing is nonsense. Prospect Research is great, donor centered fundraising. It’s simply knowing who you should be approaching for what and sometimes for how much. It’s not wasting a potential donor’s time with philanthropic opportunities that don’t interest them. In any business selling anything, you do your research on likely customers rather than just running around asking anyone with a bank account. Believe it or not most nonprofits fundraising teams either don’t have Prospect Research or use it poorly, but that’s another article of mine. Smart fundraising teams empower and listen to Prospect Researchers who guide them to the right doors to knock on. It’s been the basis of my whole career’s success.
Your organization might have a staffer who does this, but if you don’t there are freelance consultants who do this. (I have a free list on my website, www.armandozumaya.com ). For more about the marvelous world of Prospect Research check out their professional organization APRA at www.aprahome.org
So you can pick up the phone call a freelance prospect researcher, hire her and say “I want a list of all the Latino’s in the San Francisco Bay Area area who have made philanthropic gifts of $5,000 or more to education, are well connected and might be a Board Candidate”. Create criteria and have them match it. Maybe you want some geographic specificity or someone in a growing industry? Whatever you want, study your geographic and identify your candidates through solid Prospect Research.
Task a small team with picking up the phone and reaching out to these people. Whatever structure you set up to approach and interview candidates have some type of transparent tracking and a little peer pressure to get it done.
Lastly, be the one who raises it and owns it. Be that courageous person who calls out the elephant. If you’re a Board Member or Chair you can raise your hand on this subject. All it takes is one person to call out this issue. Answer these three questions:
- What should our Board optimally look like?
- How do we get the Prospect Research done?
- Who will approach these potential recruits?