Discussions of board diversity often focus us on racial and gender diversity, and rightly so given that corporate boards are made up of over 70% white men with similar numbers on boards of large non-profits. But when we start the discussion of board diversity with race and gender, we must make sure not to miss the crucial insight: boards benefit from a diversity of lived-experience perspectives, and while these are surely shaped by race and gender, they are also shaped by socio-economic differences, generational experiences, and cultural expectations that come with different ethnic and national origins.
It is not an empty claim that diverse boards are more effective. Research conducted by the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy documents the disparity between boards and the populations they serve. Specifically, the report cites a correlation between a more diverse board and increased levels of engagement and more effective donor relations. Further study suggests that the absence of board members with diverse backgrounds and experiences can lead to “blind spots” that make the board susceptible to strategies that don’t fully account for the realities the organization is facing or the people they are trying to serve.
When I think about boards I think about the vision and core values of an organization. Our vision and values are essentially promises we make to our stakeholders, telling them what to expect when they join us on the journey as employees or as we serve our customers or partners. These promises should drive what happens in an organization every day– from smaller decisions and actions made by a brand new employee to big decisions made by veteran leaders. But it is the board that sets the tone and expectations, making it the most important room to be in for any organization.
People are the engines that drive organizations. The conversations that take place change depending on who has a seat at the table. And while it isn’t always easy, it is always worthwhile to speak up from the perspective one knows. In one of my first board experiences, the question of diversity arose. One of only a handful of women on the board asked if the board wasn’t being hypocritical, asking for diversity in the organization while being a board of “middle aged white males.” All eyes turned to me, new in my role on the board and a woman of color: “I’m not middle aged,” I quipped. We shared a laugh and got down to business, improving on diversity, educational access, and the strength of our organization in the process.
Seeking other mission-aligned people to serve on the boards we commit to is central to every trustee’s work. But “mission-aligned” needn’t mean homogenous, and organizations benefit when it does not. As I get to know some of the excellent organizations working to diversify boards–for example, Him for Her founded by visionary Jocelyn Mangan–it becomes clear that diversity builds capacity at every level when it is recognized for the richness it brings to boardroom discussions that shape the future.
With the challenges facing us, including lack of confidence in governments worldwide, nonprofits and for-profits have a serious role to play in addressing some of our biggest challenges–including polarization, inequality, and the pressures on our environmental ecosystems. Board service that is intentional and focused in its leadership, and richly diverse in its composition, can make a real difference.