Dusky woman with curly hair wearing a red turban and holding a broken piece of mirror in front of her eyes. There is another woman in the mirror, aligned with the holder.
Image Credit: Amir Geshani on unsplash.com

As nonprofit organizations become more racially, culturally, and socioeconomically diverse, are nonprofit boards lagging behind? Though often a tough question to engage with, it is an important one, for in order to meet their missions, nonprofits must create diverse, equitable, and inclusive boards that align with the lived experiences of the people they serve.

…In order to meet their missions, nonprofits must create diverse, equitable, and inclusive boards that align with the lived experiences of the people they serve.

Fortunately, in recent years, some nonprofits have successfully diversified their boards, recruiting members with lived experiences that align with the communities being served by paying attention to demographics such as age, race, socioeconomic status, education, religion, disability, and diversity in thought and professional experience.

And while there are nonprofits out there that have done the intentional work, like conducting board assessments on what diversity means and establishing goals and timelines for achieving board diversity, more work remains to be done.


The Value of Lived Experience

The value of lived experiences for leaders is a topic that has been explored in other fields, such as social entrepreneurship—and it’s now being adapted to nonprofit boards.

During my four-year tenure as a board member for the Bobby Bragan Youth Foundation, I learned that I was qualified to be at the table with the board’s other members, in part, because I could provide something they could not. As the first scholarship recipient and the first Latina board member in the organization’s nearly 30-year history, and as a first-generation college student from an immigrant family, I had lived experiences those other board members did not.

When I was first invited to join the foundation’s board, I asked its members why it had taken them so long to ask a former scholarship recipient to serve on the board. Their answer? The thought had simply never occurred to them. And data show that while such exclusions may not be intentional, they have a significant impact on board recruitment and composition—with implications for nonprofit governance.

However, my experience is not exceptional. Elisa Juárez, the director of culture and DEI for a national healthcare company, was a recipient of the 2001 Hispanic Heritage Foundation (HHF) Youth Award. Several years ago, she was asked to serve on the foundation’s board of directors. When I asked Elisa to reflect on her time serving on HHF’s board as a former scholarship recipient, here’s what she had to say:

I was asked to join the board of the Hispanic Heritage Foundation in 2017, as a mid-level manager at my company at the time. I was granted a seat at the table due to my close connection to the organization, having been a former youth awardee, as well as my commitment to the foundation’s mission of identifying, inspiring, preparing, and connecting Latinx leaders in the community, classroom, and workforce. The perspective I bring is unique when compared to that of most other board members because I directly benefited from the foundation’s work as a young high school grad. I am committed to serving and giving back to others in my community through my service.

She continued, “As a Latina, I am proud to serve on a board where my thoughts count, my opinion is valued, and my voice matters.” Elisa continues to champion the mission of the Hispanic Heritage Foundation as she continues her service on their board.


Progressing Toward Diversity

A diverse board helps strengthen the trust between a nonprofit and the people they aim to serve, which is necessary for achieving an organization’s mission. For example, I currently serve as a board member for Educational Opportunities, a nonprofit dedicated to assisting youth who have the academic ability to attend college but not the financial means. Through the organization, I interviewed high school seniors who applied for a $36,000 college scholarship. Most of our scholarship applicants and recipients are talented young people of color, and seeing me on the board, in a position of power, creates a bridge between the organization and these potential scholarship recipients.

A 2021 BoardSource study, Leading with Intent: Reviewing the State of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion on Nonprofit Boards, asked nonprofit CEOs whether they had the right individuals on their board. Nearly half—49 percent—stated they did not have the right board members to “establish trust with the communities they serve.” This reveals that the sector is becoming aware of this trust gap—but how are nonprofits responding?

To be sure, the sector is making some progress—particularly with respect to gender and age. In a recent study, The Lilly School of Philanthropy, Johnson Grossnickle & Associates, and BoardSource noted that the gender gap is closing, with more women-identified leaders serving on boards. In 2018, women made up 48 percent of nonprofit boards. The number increased to 53 percent in the 2021 Leading with Intent BoardSource study.

Boards are also becoming more diverse with regard to age. In 2021, BoardSource found that 30 percent of all board members surveyed were under the age of 44, and 56 percent of all board members were under the age of 54. Comparatively, in 2017, when the study used a different age range, they found that 43 percent were under the age of 49, which suggests a trend toward younger board members.

Despite such progress, areas for growth remain. The BoardSource study found that people with a disability make up only five percent of all nonprofit board members. This leaves out important perspectives that cut across the sector—especially in nonprofits that work directly with people with disabilities.

Boards also need to do significant work to become racially and ethnically diverse. In the same 2021 study, of the 659 respondents surveyed, BoardSource found that 22 percent identified as either African American, Asian, Hispanic, Native American, biracial or multiracial, or other. Though this was an improvement from only 16 percent in 2017, 2020 United States Census data show that over 42 percent of the country’s population identifies with one or more of these racial and ethnic categories, indicating a clear underrepresentation of these groups on nonprofit boards.


Opportunities for Improvement

Nonprofits have an opportunity to recruit prospective board members beyond their social networks. Organizations can look at local chambers of commerce, local professional associations tied with an affinity group, as well as an executive search firm if their budget permits. Other associations like Communities Foundation of Texas also have a database for nonprofit board opportunities that can be a resource for both nonprofits and individuals interested in serving on a nonprofit board.

Recognizing that unique perspectives and backgrounds can add significant value to boards will take these organizations to the next level.

Resources like this are important because organizations often depend on current board members to recommend prospective board members. As a result, “new board members are likely to be a lot like current…board members in terms of race, socioeconomic status, and other demographic characteristics,” according to Molly Brennan of the executive search firm Koya Leadership Partners.

The social sector also has an opportunity to incentivize nonprofits to diversify their boards with a grant to nonprofits when their boards meet certain diversity standards or best practices. Research-driven organizations like Candid (formerly known as GuideStar), which profiles hundreds of thousands of nonprofits on its website, could track such information. Many nonprofits already share their diversity goals on their Candid profiles. Another option might involve issuing seals when a nonprofit achieves certain diversity benchmarks for their board or employee base, similar to Candid’s Seals of Transparency.

Recognizing that unique perspectives and backgrounds can add significant value to boards will take these organizations to the next level. This may be uncharted waters for many nonprofits, but having board members who understand the issues on a deep, personal level is vital to the sector’s growth and survival.

Ultimately, the people an organization selects to join its board shape how that organization will grow and serve its communities. Doing that well requires thoughtful and intentional board building.