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How Big Companies Can Push Nonprofits To Diversify Their Boards

There are many diverse employees that want to help local organizations–not just the CEO.

How Big Companies Can Push Nonprofits To Diversify Their Boards
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Nonprofit boards, unsurprisingly, are a rich white club–more than 90% of nonprofit CEOs are white, as are 84% of their boards. Both of those shares have actually risen in recent years, showing that while this particular rich white club is intensely aware of that problem–they take surveys and talk about it a lot–it still adds more rich white folks to that circle, instead of solving an obvious diversity gap and racial bias problem.

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Part of the issue revolves around privilege and laziness: Many leaders don’t have racially diverse business networks, and without being very intentional about how to recruit and fairly vet top-level candidates, there’s plenty of talent that may go unseen or untapped.

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But for-profit companies may not recognize that many of their diverse top employees also want the opportunity to serve on those boards. And that finding ways to elevate more of those candidates is a win-win: Cause groups gain a broader perspective, while employees gain stronger leadership skills and may be encouraged to stick around longer. “There’s a big opportunity because nonprofit boards are complaining they need more people for diversity,” says Alice Korngold, CEO of Korngold Consulting, a strategy advisory service for board members, corporate executives, and nonprofits. “There are qualified people at companies and they’re waiting in the wings.”

That’s because the recruiting process is typically “fairly random,” she says. A nonprofit that needs a board seat filled might start calling companies to see who is interested, which could lead to the CEO or some other top executive asking around informally or on an email thread, not exactly the sort of science that ensures whoever replies is both prepared and the right fit.

A better way, which some companies are now adopting, is to interview their own employees about their charitable interests and places they might want to serve, creating a list of top candidates by passion and skill set, which can be improved through coordinating more volunteer opportunities, informational learning sessions with various charities, and learning from others who’ve gone through or organized these experiences. When the time comes, both companies and nonprofits will be aware of the right potential match.

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Employees from different backgrounds are certainly eager for the chance. Another recent survey of 1,000 high-ranking employees at Dow, Symantec, HP, Johnson Controls, and PIMCO by Korngold Consulting found that while a little over half of all respondents had served on boards, 96% stated their interest, according to results published in the group’s Better World Leadership report. “Significantly, the group of people interested in boards come from more diverse backgrounds than the group [is] already serving,” the report notes. Among minorities, 37% are interested compared to the 22% who already serve. (There’s room for more women, too, with 56% interested but only 44% serving.)

In general, that’s because while places may commonly provide financial contributions to groups where an employee is a board member–or even offer other employees the chance to volunteer there–it’s far less common to set up a formal program that helps employees figure out what boards they might join, or provides related training to ensure the workers who might get those positions are effective at them. Less than a quarter of the respondents were aware of such programs, with only an eighth reporting that their company provided any training opportunities.

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For companies, that’s a missed chance in several ways: 74% of those who were introduced to an opportunity by their employer felt it improved their impression of the company, while 49% noted that being plugged into cause work was part of why they continued to feel loyal to their day job. In fact, 32% of respondents said such opportunities were part of why they chose to work for their company in the first place. (When companies help facilitate a connection to a cause group, plus make a financial contribution to the places those employees join, those positivity scores jump to 86%, 59%, and 40%, respectively.)

[Image: StudioM1/iStock]
In addition to a company building goodwill and its own in-house reputation, there’s also the chance for board members to build new business relationships among their new nonprofit colleagues, and see how a different team solves problems. Those who join boards, the report notes, say it enhances important job skills–the most common include community relations, governance, communications, networking, decision-making, strategic planning, and consensus building. Many nonprofit board members also say they receive a secondary education in how social and environmental issues really affect both their community and company.

The privilege problem aside, 78% of participants say board service provides a “deeper appreciation of the perspectives of people from backgrounds different from my own.” To truly benefit, companies need to be more deliberate about placing and promoting their employees into these nonprofit roles. “This suggests that more people might be involved if companies enhance and expand board training, preparation, and matching services,” notes the report.

About the author

Ben Paynter is a senior writer at Fast Company covering social impact, the future of philanthropy, and innovative food companies. His work has appeared in Wired, Bloomberg Businessweek, and the New York Times, among other places.

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