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The Value of Diversity

board meeting


It seems to be in every nonprofit’s strategic plan…improve board and staff diversity. According to Malcolm Forbes, “Diversity is the act of thinking independently together” – which in its own right should help bring the best ideas and strategies to the table. This all sounds good and is very PC (post Jimmy Carter) but the reasons why you should make every effort to make this goal a reality are seldom discussed. Let’s change that here.
Let’s start with your board. You’ve certainly come across the expression, “male, stale and pale.” How does your board fare here? Nothing against guys (like me…except for the “stale” part) – but having women at the boardroom table brings many benefits. Besides their enviable ability to incent most males to be on their best behavior, it has been my experience that women tend to explore issues more deeply, stimulate thoughtful conversation on actionable agenda items, and promote reaching consensus. For the most part, they also bring a balanced perspective on work and family issues, as well as those addressing the disenfranchised. It is critical to have strong female representation on your board for these and multiple other reasons.
Ethnic diversity is often the other big compositional issue for boards. The challenge is having representation, while at the same time avoiding the appearance of seeking token African American, Hispanic or Asian volunteers for your board leadership. It is not about the skin tones circling the table, it is about the rich spectrum of perspectives and life experiences that enrich and enliven group decisions. Be sure your nominating committee has done its work and has identified the skill sets, professional sectors, and geographic representation your board needs before it moves forward in identifying ANY new potential volunteer leadership talent.
And when it comes to balancing ethnic diversity, take an honest and realistic look at both your constituencies and stakeholders when setting your sights. Your board should represent those you serve and those who contribute to your mission. If these groups are decidedly homogeneous, ways to insure diverse perspectives include recruiting thought leaders to your board; providing board training; and digging deeply into your volunteer and professional networks for connections leading to the right mix of leadership talent. And, it is possible that if you have a homogeneous constituency… it is that way because you have not had input and perspective from a diverse board and staff.
But don’t just take my word on the value a diverse board and staff brings to an organization. If all other arguments fail for this critical strategic move, take a lesson from James Surowiecki’s Wisdom of the Crowds. The book’s core thesis and most compelling arguments are both simple and revolutionary at the same time. In a nutshell, Surowiecki’s research has revealed that the most successful, creative and innovative decisions are achieved through the input of diverse groups of semi-experts – not homogeneous subject matter “experts.” And besides, a diverse group makes any encounter more fun.
Achieving board and staff diversity has a very positive ripple effect as well. Once you are on your way to achieving this goal, leverage this new reality to attract a broader base of supporters. Anyone in the foundation fundraising business knows that one of the first questions many foundations ask during discovery interviews relates to the makeup of your board and the constitution of your staff. Funders value diversity because they know you will make better decisions and spend their money more wisely.
A diverse board and staff also have the potential to open the door to new, previously unconsidered potential donors and supporters. Your directors and staff lead by example. If they are in a highly visible place within your organization, then others of like backgrounds and heritages may also be inclined to follow suit, or at least give you a second look.
Your takes:
  1. Work with your nominating committee to take a talent, reach, and diversity inventory of your board and staff to identify areas needing strengthening and to set targets to recruit people who satisfy multiple objectives.
  2. If your board and staff are homogenous, set an organizational objective to identify and recruit more diverse leaders.
  3. Value and use your leadership and staff diversity in your advancement planning and execution.
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Have a development, executive recruitment, or campaign strategy or management challenge? Let’s talk! Click here to connect with Rebekah Kaufman, Director of Consulting Services at CRI.