Oct. 31, 2017

Not-for-profit organizations have a diversity problem, and it starts at the board level. BoardSource's Leading with Intent 2017 National Index of Nonprofit Board Practices, which surveyed more than 4,000 not-for-profit professionals, found that 90 percent of not-for-profit chief executives and 84 percent of board members identified as white. Almost a third of the boards were all white.

The problem with a board that is too demographically similar is that it has a ripple effect on the organization it serves. If boards aren't intentional about their focus on diversity, it may mean the organization's workforce composition also stays uniform. BoardSource survey respondents cited boards and recruiters as major barriers for hiring more people of color, particularly at the executive level.

Diversity at the board level carries a lot of benefits to the organization. A diverse board reflects the community the organization serves. It could also help the organization advance its mission because it demonstrates confidence to the public that the organization is in touch with the community's needs. Diverse boards can also give not-for-profit organizations a broader perspective on the issues their communities face and bring new ideas to the table. Boards are frequently sounding boards for organizational leadership, and having some differences in opinion on the board could help the organization be more innovative in its strategies. From a donation standpoint, a more diverse group of people at the board level opens up new avenues for financial support.

So how does an organization start to make a change? Nancy Mellard, the Executive Vice President and General Counsel for the Benefits & Insurance of CBIZ, has a few ideas. Mellard has often found herself as the only woman at the boardroom table. She now advocates for more inclusion at the highest organizational levels. We asked Nancy to go through some of the questions she commonly hears from organizations wanting to mix it up.

How Does a Board Know It Needs to Mix Up its Composition?

Look at the demographics of the community the not-for-profit serves. Your board should be similar. For example, if you serve mainly women, you need to have strong female representation on the board.

Too often I see organizations and their leadership equate differences to weaknesses, when in reality, there is great value and strength in those differences. Differences bring diversity, and diversity spurs new ways of thinking. Diversity of thought empowers an organization or a board to be innovative and take smart risks. Focusing on our differences makes us stronger, and moves the needle forward.

What Missteps Do You See in Organizations' Attempts to Diversify?

Do not follow a "token" mentality. Too many organizations think they can solve the problem of diversity by putting that one "token" member on the board. Realize that one token diverse board member is not the smart way to approach this goal. It takes balance in demographics and in gender for unconscious biases to disappear.

Another thing you can improve is the language used at the board and executive level. You should never use gender or race qualifiers before a description of a candidate. So please stop yourself before describing anyone as "the most qualified female director." Get rid of those types of adjectives!

How Can an Organization Encourage Diversity Efforts?

Boards can also make demographic diversity a key qualifier for new board members. If current board members' networks do not turn up the right candidates, it may be time to bring in some third-party support.

Within the organization, leadership involvement is huge. Find a champion for the cause who can encourage mentoring and career development programs for current staff. For me, the champion was our CEO who worked with me over six years ago to start our CBIZ Women's Advantage program.

The key is to try and focus your efforts and energies long-term. I've been advocating for women in business my entire career, and I still find that conversations about women in business have not changed much in the 30-plus years I've been involved in those discussions.

As you move forward, don't lose sight of the smaller victories. You may start out with only one or two diverse board members, but it's important that you stay intentional so that you create the environment for others to join the table in the future.

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Nancy Mellard is the Executive Vice President and General Counsel for CBIZ Benefits & Insurance Services Division. She is also the national leader for CBIZ Women’s Advantage, which supports more than 2,000 women across the company.

Published on October 31, 2017