Technical Assistance: Choosing to change board culture

May 8, 2019

The hands of two colleagues in a meeting at work by Gender Spectrum Collection

Diversity has been the talk of, and about, boards for a long time, albeit with more talk than action. Boards of nonprofits remain, according to BoardSource’s 2017 Leading with Intent:

  • Overwhelmingly white
  • Pretty evenly split between male and female, but with no ability to know about gender self-identification
  • Skewed to the 50 and older crowd.

On these overwhelmingly white boards, there is typically little information on indicators of privilege around the board table, or understanding of problem-solving strategies, or any of the other variables on which a board might need, and should want, to diversify.

The current expansion of the diversity push for predominantly white boards (although it often feels more like pulling and tugging boards, kicking and screaming) to address equity, diversity, and inclusion makes the achievement of the desired goal even more challenging for many boards, as these are terms that are associated with varied interpretations and a great lack of clarity.

Too often, however, these boards magnify the challenges inherent in adding anything “different” to a group by their own processes — or, rather, lack thereof. In adding “difference” to a group, we first must make sure that the group is ready, willing, and able to welcome that difference. We cannot simply sprinkle in a few variations and sit back and conduct business as usual. To do so is both a waste of time and an insult to those you bring on.  There is pre-work that must be done if you truly want to achieve the desired end and not just do it for show.

The first question that a board should ask is “Why? Why do we want to add difference to our mix? Why do we want to be inclusive?” These days, there seem to be two answers.

The first: We want to be able to check the right boxes on a grant proposal; in other words, we want to do this because a funder wants us to do it.

The second: We understand the value and importance of being both a diverse and inclusive board and organization, and understand that we, as the board, must model the desired and valued behavior of the organization.

Answer one is not a pathway to success. We have learned from the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Fair Housing Act of 1968, and other similar laws, as well as what the research shows, that attitudes and thinking cannot be legislated. Were that the case, we would not be where we are more than 50 years later. Legislation can mandate behavior change, but not a change in thinking, attitudes, and heart. Doing something just to try and make a funder happy, to look good in a funder’s eyes, will not change your organizational culture. And it is culture — the ways, beliefs, norms, etc. of a group — that needs to change if real progress is to be made.

Thus, it is only the second answer — we understand and value the importance of being a diverse and inclusive board and organization — that will lead to the eventual achievement of a diverse and inclusive board and organization. A board must have this conversation before any intentional efforts to diversify are made, unless it likes wasting its time.

After asking the first question, the most important question a board must ask, but only if it is willing to answer honestly, is the question that puts the rest of its work into play. That second question, phrased in different ways, is: Would these “different” people want to and be able to join our board?

  • Would they find our culture welcoming and open to the serious consideration of new and diverse ideas?
  • Have we created barriers for achieving diversity and inclusion, such as holding meetings at times challenging for parents of young children, or those who are classified as non-exempt and thus lacking flexibility in their work day, or those with disabilities and dependent upon others for transportation?
  • Do we have donation expectations that could immediately rule out some?
  • Are we accessible via public transportation? Is our meeting place ADA compliant?
  • How well do we use technology? Are we still dependent upon paper, or do we take advantage of virtual options, such as a password protected page for board members on our website, or the equivalent?  Do we offer virtual attendance at meetings?
  • Do we use a vocabulary of accessibility and inclusivity? Or do we use short cuts, like acronyms and vague language, in our communication or talk in our own short-hand because the board has been together so long?
  • Do we expect new board members to assimilate into the current board culture or are we open to learning from new ways of working and thinking? Are we recruiting for diversity and onboarding for sameness?

While it is essential that the full board sees the importance of, and is ready to embrace diversity and inclusion, there must also be a good number of people — and especially people in key leadership roles — who are intractable proponents of being a diverse and inclusive board and organization. It is essential that the board chair, chair of the governance committee, and the executive director see the need for diversity and have a sense of thoughtful urgency in its achievement and the tenacity to do the work that is necessary to get there.

But it is also necessary that these advocates, particularly the board chair, as well as the others involved, create a safe space for exploration, learning and acceptance of past mistakes as just that, as opposed to a space filled with finger pointing and vitriol.

The self-reflection and conversations that must happen are not easy ones to have in a public arena, such as a board meeting. Thus, if tensions and factions (even just dyads and triads) already exist around the board table, it is best to resolve those before moving into the diversity conversation.

One of the biggest and most unfair mistakes boards make when they move too quickly to try to diversify is when they bring on just one individual who is different — a “token.”

When that is done, we put on the shoulders of one individual the unfair burden and ignorant expectation that he/she should know of and speak on behalf of the entire group he/she is representing. There is an expanding body of research that reveals the stress and hardship this places on people brought into any group as a representative of diversity.

It has always been a best practice, and is common language in most bylaws, that new board members be brought on once a year, as a class. By bringing on a group of “different,” you are ensuring the empowerment of those individuals, providing them a group of immediate peers while they become integrated into the larger group, augmenting their new voice so it is not alone, but rather one of multiples, decreasing their feelings of being outsiders, and increasing the chances that these new board members will stick around to help move the organization forward.

Sadly, though, too many organizations ignore that bylaws dictate and the best practice, bringing new board members on as they are found. One of the great downsides to this is the failure to do comprehensive orientation of these new board members, as this takes planning, effort, and coordination, which we can muster once a year, but not constantly.  The downside to this approach to onboarding when you are seeking to move to a diversified and inclusive board is that it actually works against the intended goal and decreases the likelihood of success.

One of the first rules to the successful addition of any new board members is first to clean up the board culture — such as getting rid of “dead wood,” making sure the committees are all performing well and that board meetings are being used appropriately and engaging board members.

After all, you don’t want to expend the time finding the right and best board members only to have them learn bad behaviors of a unwelcoming board culture so that they feel uninvolved and unappreciated so that they leave. But if you want to bring on board members that will reflect the desired end goals of diversity and inclusion, you must do that work and the much heavier work of deep, honest reflection and, most likely, culture change.

To do otherwise will result in a revolving door for diverse board members and a remaining core of same ole, same ole.


Photo at top is courtesy the Gender Spectrum Collection