October 5, 2020

Supporting Social Justice in Non-profit Board Rooms

How diversity can create a more resilient and sustainable impact in the social sector

Social impact programming tends to be most effective when the make-up of the organization that administers it mirrors the community it serves. People, values, perspectives, and backgrounds are key components of this alchemical mixture. When the right components are in place, the output is greater trust in intention and process. It is when we are most likely to see the full promise of shared value created for program participants and administrators.

So why is diversity still such an issue in non-profit board rooms? A 2017 study by BoardSource found clear issues with racial diversity among 144 responding organizations. White/Caucasian accounted for 90% of chief executive roles, 90% of board chair roles, and 84% of board members. The report concluded rather worryingly that addressing issues of representation in the near term was highly unlikely. The issue: a gulf between executives and their boards in terms of satisfaction with the diversity of the board room. Only 18% of chief executives were satisfied with the racial/ethnic diversity at board level, while a majority of board members were satisfied.¹

Much has changed at the public consciousness level between now and when this report was published, but it highlights a key issue plaguing the social sector: more needs to be done to prioritize diversity in recruiting new board members. Diverse boards tend to have more effective governance, management infrastructure, and procedures to drive collective action and functional efficiency.² Why?

  • When boards represent the communities they serve, the embody the people, values, and perspectives that the program is designed to support. This leads to more mission-driven decision making.
  • Diverse boards are more likely to understand the context in which staff operate, and can provide new perspectives on how to evolve and improve programming.
  • Diverse recruitment can expand organizational reach and tap into new social circles, reach new donors, and inspire more action.

Non-profits should use this moment as an opportunity to drive towards their own organizational goals while simultaneously supporting our collective objectives for social justice. Boards must examine what their role should be to help maximize the sustainability and strength of programming at the institutions they serve. They must take an active role in exploring their own strengths and weaknesses, identify the gaps that must be filled to support the mission, and pursue new hires with the right backgrounds to better serve the organization’s interests.

With this approach, diversity is a logical and organic way of serving the functional interests of the program and communities it serves. The goal should be to cultivate a board whose collective experiences and backgrounds guard against insular thinking and promote a culture of collective action.

¹ “Leading with Intent,” National Index of Nonprofit Board Practices, BoardSource, 2017
² “The influence of board diversity, board diversity policies and practices, and board inclusion behaviors on nonprofit governance practices.” Buse, K., Bernstein, R.S., Journal of Business Ethics, 2016

Related team members

Richard Crumb
Managing Partner & Co-Founder Menlo Park
Jaime Batista
Principal Yarmouth
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