So you want a diverse board? Thoughts and musings from JVA’s Executive Director Breakfast Club

by Jennifer Johnson, JVA Consulting

Although having a diverse board is the goal of many nonprofit executive directors, the question of how to reach this goal is not simple, and there’s no straight line to a diverse board representing all of the communities of Denver. On June 21, Adrienne Mansanares, Inclusiveness Project Manager at The Denver Foundation spoke to a roomful of executive directors at JVA’s Executive Director Breakfast Club about inclusivity and diversity. She spoke to the fact that there is not a quick fix or easy way to create a diverse board. You can’t just go to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and tell people you want a Hispanic board member, in fact, that is exactly the opposite of what you should do.

Adrienne’s advice was to take the thought of recruiting diverse board members out of your mind and to think about how you can best serve your targeted constituents. She recommended getting your extroverted board members out into those communities you want to include and get to know the community. But it’s not about selling your nonprofit to these communities; rather, it’s about listening to what they have to say. Let your introverted board members do research and data gathering. She shared that building a truly inclusive and diverse board is a long process—plan on two to five years. It begins with the leadership of your organization, the executive director and the existing board of directors. Also, make sure you are starting this at a time when your organization is stable—not when you are starting a capital campaign or when a new executive director may be coming on board.

Once there is buy-in from your leadership, then you can begin the process. The first step is to build a diversity committee, and make the committee meetings a priority. The speed of change may not be as fast as some people would like, but learn to celebrate the little victories. Adrienne shared a story of one group working toward this goal that celebrated that they had not cancelled a committee meeting during their first year. When you have found and are ready to reach out to a person of color or another underrepresented person for your board, be transparent, share with this person that you are seeking to find board members to represent their community and would they be comfortable in fulfilling that need along with sharing his/her other great skills. See that person for who they are and recognize their skills, but don’t gloss over the diversity they are bringing to your board. If they will be the only person who is different (in terms of gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc.) from your board, then let them know that as well. Let them know that you are actively seeking to recruit more diverse board members.

A study Adrienne mentioned from the late 90s on corporate boards and diversity found that when one woman joined an all male board, it was exhausting. When two women were recruited, still no change—there would be competition between them. When three women joined a corporate board, things shifted. The board culture changed and the women moved to leadership positions. The study found similar results with nonprofit boards. One person who is a minority in a room is going to feel tokenized, while three people will feel empowered.

Finally, if you are in the Denver metro area, The Denver Foundation has technical assistance grants for working on inclusivity at all levels for your organization. The great part about technical assistance grants for inclusivity is that there is no limit (like other Denver Foundation TA grants), and your organization can have revenues over $500,000 (again, different from the typical TA grant).


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