Mixing It Up On Nonprofit Boards: Diversify or Fail

I love Scott E. Page's book, "The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies." First of all, he is a kindred spirit, talking about joy, diversity, and Ben and Jerry's New York Super Fudge Chunk (my favorite). He also opens his chapters with delightful and illuminating quotations from an eclectic array of historians, rock stars, writers, comedians, philosophers, and others.

"What each of us has to offer, what we can contribute to the vibrancy of our world, depends on our being different in some way, in having combinations of perspectives, interpretations, heuristics, and predictive models that differ from those of others. These differences aggregate into a collective ability that exceeds what we possess individually," shows Page, a professor of complex systems, political science, and economics.

I have seen this phenomenon with many dozens of nonprofit boards with which I consult. These are the boards that are comprised of members from diverse backgrounds and perspectives who work with a nonprofit CEO in creating the vision of the organization's greater potential, establish a strategy and revenue model for success, and help the organization to achieve its highest impact. I have also seen too many nonprofits stultified by boards that are comprised of homogeneous groups of people; the organizations they govern tend to suffer and sometimes fade away.

One of my favorite blogposts reports on a study of "Innovators' DNA", or "What makes visionary entrepreneurs tick?" The answer is curiosity and inquisitiveness. Additionally, say the study's authors, Professors Jeff Dyer of Brigham Young University and Hal Gregersen of INSEAD, visionary entrepreneurs "are really good at networking with smart people who have little in common with them, but from whom they can learn."

"Diverse perspectives and heuristics can be engines of joy," says Page. This is one of the primary reasons that I so enjoy training and placing business executives on nonprofit boards. Through nonprofit boards, people from diverse backgrounds and perspectives have the opportunity to come together to help drive towards a common mission for which they are passionate.

As board members, they also gain a deeper understanding about the issues that their organizations address--whether the issue is the availability of potable water in the world, poverty and hunger, or human rights. Board members have the chance of a lifetime to learn from people they might never have otherwise met, travel together to the nonprofits' sites, see the world through the eyes of others, and help nonprofits to find and implement solutions to address global challenges. The experience is often transformative.

I will end this post with a quote that I opened one of my book chapters with. It's a quote from another favorite book of mine, Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language, by Eva Hoffman, a Polish immigrant to the United States. "We could declare each other products of different cultures--as we, of course, are--and leave it, respectfully, at that. But that would leave us separate and impermeable--something that is easier to accept with impersonal entities like class, or gender, or country than with a fellow human being clamoring to be understood... A true translation proceeds by the motions of understanding and sympathy; it happens by slow increments, sentence-by sentence, phrase-by-phrase."

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  • Alice Korngold

    There's an article in today's NYT that shows why diversity on nonprofit boards is so important.  The article is about a new program at the Chicago Police Academy to teach police officers how to write novels. "Among these officers, not all were dreaming of writing crime thrillers.
    Some aspired to more offbeat genres — children’s stories, self-help
    guides for police leadership, biographies of criminals, tales of weird
    cold cases, and at least one planned to modernize stories from the Bible
    by interweaving them with incidents from police work."

    I once consulted to a board comprised of people from homogeneous backgrounds; the mission was to inspire and teach literary writing.  Except the vision was only to teach to wealthy, Caucasian, suburban women...just like the board members themselves.  In spite of the fact that the organization was embedded in a highly diverse community, rich with new international immigrants, a women's prison, and a plethora of nonprofits with which to collaborate.  There were also many foundations and corporations who would potentially fund innovative projects for more inclusive programming.

    I loved today's NYT article because it was just one example of the many voices that should be cultivated and included in writing and publishing (just to name one form of media) -- good for the marketplace and great for the world!   

    The bottom line is: More diverse boards and teams of executives will have greater vision to include more diverse clients, customers, constituents.  That's a win-win for the the enterprise, the community, and the world!

    My favorite quote from the article: “I remember thinking, How is it that I’m where I am and he’s where he
    is?” she said. “How did we get to each other’s lives from separate
    worlds?”