Bringing diversity to nonprofit boards

People hold meeting around table at a conference room.
People hold meeting around table at a conference room.

Bringing diversity to nonprofit boards

NYN BoardCon panelists discuss concrete strategies to finding diverse board members – and making them feel included.
February 6, 2020

Promoting diversity, equity and inclusion among board members is a major topic among nonprofit organizations today. It’s for good reason: 80% of nonprofit board members are white, according to BoardSource, despite the fact that most chief executives agree diversity is important. And taking that initiative from discussion into action is vital, panelists said at New York Nonprofit Media’s BoardCon event on Thursday.

The process is easier said than done. A good first step for organizations is taking the time to assess their progress in achieving that diversity, said Marc Christmas, a board member of Governance Matters, which provides guidance to nonprofit boards. The New York Council of Nonprofits, another organization on whose board Christmas serves, found poor results after assessing its board and staff – but it was the first step toward doing things like bringing on more diverse suppliers.

Concrete action can also be taken when trying to find new board members with different backgrounds and perspectives. Relying on resources like BoardAssist, which matches organizations with potential board members, is one option. But Ruth Rathblott, president and CEO of Harlem Educational Activities Fund, said she has successfully recruited board members by searching on LinkedIn. And identity-based groups, such as those for African-American lawyers, may be a great resource for finding people, said Damyn Kelly, president and CEO of Lutheran Social Services of New York.

Attracting millennials is also of particular interest to many nonprofit organizations since board members skew older. Volunteering has been one successful pathway to bringing on younger board members, said Leslie Gottlieb, former president of the New York City chapter of the Public Relations Society of America.

Creating a junior board, which explicitly is for younger board members, is another strategy, but panelists warned of the challenges involved. Managing another body can be resource-intensive and also feel alienating for junior members, said Surjit Chana, who serves as the board vice chairman at Care for the Homeless. “That’s like the kids table,” he said. 

Regardless, panelists agreed it was vital to make sure board members across different demographics don’t merely become tokens. “Diversity is being invited to the school dance," said Kelly of Lutheran Social Services of New York. “Inclusion is having somebody ask you to actually dance.” Though promoting that inclusion can be difficult, taking steps to force board members to sit with different fellow members at meetings and encouraging participation can help. “Be patient,” said Lauren Girshon, director of development at Harlem Educational Activities Fund, “it’s not something that’s going to happen overnight.”

NYN Media reporter Kay Dervesh
Kay Dervishi
is a staff reporter at NYN Media.