Originally posted in TLNT.

Everyone knows the importance of increasing board diversity at nonprofits — but there are barriers that hinder diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility (DEIA) efforts. In fact, according to Fundraising Voices, only 22 percent of board members nationwide come from underrepresented backgrounds. Further, according to the 2021 Leading With Intent: BoardSource Index of Nonprofit Board Practices report, boards are disconnected from the communities they serve. Almost half of all chief executives said they did not have the right board members to establish trust; only a third place a high priority on those communities; and even fewer prioritize membership within those communities.

Clearly, there is still work to be done. Perhaps the answer lies within reviewing nonprofit board criteria and conducting audits.

Reviewing Board Criteria

First and foremost, nonprofits must establish board criteria. To do so, consider starting with a conversation about diversity. The National Council of Nonprofits provides tips for these conversations, including future planning, expansion of cultural awareness, diversity of professional expertise, life experiences, geographic reach, strengths and weaknesses of the organization and more. The council suggests sparking candid conversations about diversity and other important issues for boards and provides a tip sheet to help nonprofits get started.

Nonprofits should understand that one size does not fit all. The criteria for diversity will be different for every nonprofit, depending upon the mission, values and target communities. Boards should strive for better representation, whether from the communities that are being served or the skillsets that are lacking on the board or within the organization. Skillsets can be financial, legal or even political, if government funding is high on the priority list.

Conducting Board Audits

The governance committee should then conduct a board audit to access the current skillsets and diversity breakdown. Nonprofits need the right people on their boards to achieve the highest performance — and they need to routinely evaluate board composition. Such board self-assessment is a critical governance best practice. All highly effective nonprofit boards leverage this essential tool.

According to the National Council of Nonprofits, whether using a self-assessment of the board (McKinsey) or short-form “matrix,” boards should beware of limiting beliefs. Self-assessments take a critical look at nonprofits’ dynamics, especially diving into the people and culture. Boards need the right mix of gender, ethnicity, race, skillsets and more, depending on the nonprofits’ unique needs.

Every member should participate in these routine evaluations, which should be executed every 2-3 years. The timing of these assessments and strategic planning do not necessarily need to coincide, but boards must use the insights gained through the assessment to inform a strategic plan, whether working on a new one or refining aspects of an existing one.

Boards need the right people — chair, co-chairs, C-suite and more — in the right places. Are there succession plans in place? How effective is the current leadership? Does the work of the board tie into the mission and values of the nonprofit? Strive to cultivate a healthy work environment for the entire organization and ensure that there is both strategic and financial oversight.

Ultimately, organizations need to hold boards accountable. BoardSource’s Checklist for Top-Level Board Governance Committee is a valuable resource and explains the roles and responsibilities of the governance committee, which ensures that the board is doing its work effectively. In addition to conducting self-assessments and enlisting new members, BoardSource suggests enforcing term limits for board members. Limits ensure that new ideas come into an organization, and more members of a community can be rotated in to develop a close relationship with the nonprofit’s cause. This resource can also be tailored to fit the organization’s needs, which goes back to identifying what inclusiveness looks like for each individual organization.

Identifying Needs for Recruitment

Once the current board makeup is assessed, it is important to identify any gaps when compared to the developed board criteria to create goals around recruitment for more diverse members. By creating a search based upon these findings, nonprofits will be more productive in their recruiting efforts. This may seem like a straightforward concept, but often search criteria becomes tunnel-visioned based on pre-existing notions of where — and for whom — to look. Therefore, it is important to use the initial findings of the board audit as the foundation for search and recruitment efforts. There are plenty of ways to do this, including tips from a BoardSource webinar published in Nonprofit Quarterly, which discusses ways to recruit and avoid tokenism.

Once candidates are identified, it is important to get them interested and engaged. It is one thing to recruit diverse members; it is another thing to make sure they feel included as full members of the group. Consider:

  • Onboarding more than one new member at a time
  • Creating a cohort
  • Asking a veteran board member to serve as a mentor

These strategies encourage opportunities to challenge the status quo and ask questions. Nonprofits should facilitate a culture of inquiry, professional candor and diversity of ideas.

The Right Board Composition Can Better Fulfill Missions

According to BoardSource’s Strategic Board Composition Matrix, high-performing nonprofit boards are both thoughtful and intentional in creating a strategically composed board of directors. Composition ideally reflects diversity in gender/identity, age, race/ethnicity, skillsets, expertise, network and characteristics — and each individual board’s composition should be considered in the context of its specific needs, strategies and organizational lifecycle.

Although accountability officially lies within the governance committee, it actually rests upon the shoulders of each individual member. Diversity will look different for each organization. The key is to assess the board, identify gaps, develop and execute a strategy and be accountable to it. Not only is DEIA important for success, but it also strengthens the ability to be in tune with community needs. With the right tactics, a nonprofit board will be able to improve its makeup while still fulfilling its mission.

Coleman Derrick halfbody updated

Derrick Coleman

Derrick Coleman has more than 20 years business experience and is the Practice Leader of GHJ Search and Staffing, GHJ’s recruiting division. Search and Staffing specializes in the placement of accounting and finance professionals into temporary and permanent positions across a broad range of…Learn More

Wilson Donella halfbody

Donella Wilson

Donella Wilson, CPA, leads GHJ’s Nonprofit Practice and is also President and Chief Philanthropy Officer of GHJ Foundation, GHJ’s vehicle for purposeful and proactive giving to the community. A leader in both the nonprofit and accounting communities, Donella was named a finalist in the 2021 Los…Learn More