Board diversity is a big topic right now, and rightly so. When corporate and nonprofit boards are diverse, they tend to do a better job of knowing how to best meet the needs of the communities they serve and developing unique solutions to problems they may face. Only by using the talent, experience, and insights of people who have lived local conditions can boards really come up with solutions to some of our most pressing problems.
This is a national and a local situation. Treasure Valley boards are not, in my experience, generally diverse, nor are they reflective of the larger community. Because I am an educator, I am involved with more education groups, although I also work with economic development organizations as well, in addition to working with the refugee and Hispanic community.
The diversity that I see the most of in these areas is gender diversity at the board member level, though not always at the executive, chair, and director levels. (Full disclosure: I am the chair of the Treasure Valley Education Partnership. I’m a minority, African-American, but I am male and turn 50 next month).
The education and identity group advocate organizations (such as TVEP, the refugee organizations I work with) tend to be the most diverse with respect to gender. With respect to other areas of diversity (race, sexual orientation/gender identity, and age, etc.) most organizations in our region appear to be lacking.
The causes are multidimensional and in some cases complex. For example, as most of us know, older white males are disproportionately represented at the executive level. This doesn’t reflect active bias; it’s more often a question of who can serve in these capacities. Board leadership takes a lot of time and it requires people who have the time available and fiscal means to support giving up this time for the nonprofit endeavor.
The group that fits this profile in our society is primarily successful white men, followed closely by successful white women. This is reflective of the general economic distribution of wealth in our society.
A second and related aspect is the “give or get” concept that is often at play with boards. Board members with either give a certain amount of money, or use their personal networks for fundraising. Again, with the social distribution of wealth and business contacts, successful white males often are able to more easily meet this requirement, and likewise often have stronger network contacts who can contribute. Fundraising is the life blood of these organizations, and if a particular organization is very focused on that, the leadership will reflect this demographic more.
With boards, you often see people who feel fortunate in their personal success and want to give back. The demographic isn’t ideally diverse, but these members are filling a vital role in the community. I work with a lot of these people and they are absolutely dedicated to improving the well-being of their constituents. We’re all better off for their sacrifices.
Still, the simple truth of the matter I believe is that the white male demographic has more time to give back because that demographic is at present more successful in their professional life than other groups. The same would appear to hold true for the director-level employees in these organizations: These are often jobs that pay considerably less than an equivalent executive job would pay in the private sector, so the people who are available to do this work need to be people who can forego that additional income.
In our community, diversity problems often manifest with a lack of people of color. Despite the significant Hispanic population in our region, Hispanics are lacking on boards, as are refugees or descendants of refugees, even though we’re a refugee relocation area with a healthy population of community members who could serve. There aren’t as many women at the executive level as there should be, even though women obviously desire to serve and be engaged, and there are almost no members of the LGBT community.
On the subject of women in particular, there are often structural impediments. These are obstacles in place that may not be intentional, but nonetheless inhibit broad participation. One example is that often boards meet early in the morning to avoid disrupting the business day. If someone is a parent who has to get kids off to school, this meeting time renders participation impossible.
Herein lies the rub when it comes to increasing diversity at these levels: organizations and their boards must intentionally seek out members of these communities, intentionally create pools of candidates from these communities, and intentionally include these communities in their various activities. Simply saying “Hey, we want more diversity” isn’t enough. You have to build relationships with these communities, expand your personal networks to be more inclusive, build trust, find commonalities, and THEN invite them to be on your team.
As a minority, I can tell you that we know when we are the token diverse person and it takes more than that to get us to the goal of having diversity in leadership. Often, the membership of our local nonprofits and corporations is considerably more diverse than its leadership. You can attribute this in part to people wanting to help their communities on a level where they can see the outcomes, rather than on a strategic level.
Still, there is probably a bit of the economics in play as well. Boots-on-the-ground engagement involves a couple of hours at a time, often at times the volunteer can control. Leadership positions require more time, often at times the leader doesn’t control. This makes the ground-level volunteerism both more appealing and easier than the more senior leadership roles.
Nonprofit organizations and corporations need to undergo a paradigm shift in how they view their roles. The “give or get” concept is important, but when it becomes the primary driver in board membership and leadership, it can cause every board to look awfully similar. Boards should also put a priority on broad community representation, inclusiveness, diversity, representation from served constituents, and relationships with community groups. That will open up the pool of potential leadership candidates.
Change can be scary. Reaching out to communities of strangers or near-strangers is uncomfortable. That’s why it takes drive to make diversity happen.
Michael Satz is University of Idaho associate vice president and executive officer who represents the university in southwestern Idaho. His board service includes a place on the advisory board of the Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce and the board of the Boise Valley Economic Partnership, and he previously served on the board of the Idaho Technology Council. He is the chair of the Treasure Valley Education Partnership.