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The people running nonprofits continue to be rich, white, and unsure how to change that

Nonprofit boards know abstractly that diversity is important, but very few of them do anything about it.

The people running nonprofits continue to be rich, white, and unsure how to change that
[Source Image: cherezoff/iStock]

The vast majority of nonprofit board members say they believe that having a diverse set of leaders is important. They’re just not doing anything to actively encourage it.

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That’s the major takeaway from a recent survey called “The Governance Gap” by Koya Leadership Partners, an executive search firm that works with mission-driven clients. Overall, 90% of board members interviewed said they felt leadership diversity was critical to success, but fewer than than 50% had taken any steps to boost inclusion among their own boards. To arrive at that data, Koya polled 102 of its own clients. “It became clear to us as a firm, and all of us individually as we worked with boards, that there’s a huge gap between what boards often say they want in a leader, and what they themselves represent and how they operate,” says Molly Brennan, a founding partner.

Part of the problem is that seemingly well-intentioned board members may be trapped in their own bland feedback loop. “Typically, you’re working with a group of high-net-worth white folks who don’t have an understanding of why their organizations and groups aren’t diverse, and what it takes to actually attract people of color into these roles, and their own responsibility to help lead the way for their organization,” she adds.

That problem obviously exists across a range of group budgets and cause work. For this effort, more than 80% of those surveyed belonged to organizations with budgets in the $25 million or less range. A little over 40% of the organizations surveyed spent less than $5 million annually. The largest nonprofit topic areas represented included health and social service work, followed by education, youth services, and arts and culture groups, among others.

Overall, about a quarter of Koya’s survey respondents were people of color. The report notes that portion is actually higher than the sector-wide board average, which BoardSource reported as 84% white, with 27% of all boards lacking even one person of color.

Either way, some of the findings were still bleak: In general, 61% of respondents didn’t feel their board adequately reflected the community it intended to serve. Another 70% weren’t happy with their current level of leadership diversity and inclusion. The majority of organizations also didn’t have any written policy about encouraging diversity at the board level, or related training about how to achieve it. Less than half of all groups even evaluated their current level of diversity efforts.

“Boards know it’s important, they know it’s a responsibility, but they really don’t know what to do,” says Brennan. Boards who want to change that need to commit to a “path of education” to understand how to create opportunities for inclusion, eliminate their own inherent bias, and make sure that as a variety of people are better represented, they’ve created an environment where their advice is actually welcomed and acted upon.

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The report shares some strategies that have worked for a few nonprofits, starting with self-evaluation. “You can actually put your board through the exercise of saying, ‘Let’s look at who we are as a group and figure out what we bring to the table, not just in terms of race and gender, but also in terms of geography, background, skills, perspectives, and connections to the mission,'” she adds. Once everything is mapped out, it’s easy to see gaps. Then you can work on figuring out how to fill them, which is probably someone you don’t know yet. As Brennan put it, “To get serious about recruiting, [you have to] move beyond the usual suspects in your social circle.”

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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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