According to BoardSource research, the diversity of boards today has not increased over the past two years and seems unlikely to change anytime soon based on current recruitment practices (BoardSource, 2017). These findings are extremely disheartening given the increased attention that diversity, inclusion, and equity have received over the past few years. A panel of nonprofit scholars and professionals convened at the Association for Research on Nonprofit Organizations and Voluntary Action (ARNOVA) conference on November 16, 2018, to consider why nonprofit governance is still struggling with these issues. Panel members included Jasmine McGinnis Johnson (George Washington University), Chris Fredette (University of Windsor), Kenneth Anderson Taylor (Texas A & M), Nancy Lee (BoardSource), and Ruth McCambridge (Nonprofit Quarterly).
The panel was moderated by Ruth Bernstein (University of Washington, Tacoma) and Kelly LeRoux (University of Illinois at Chicago), who framed the discussion around three questions: what do you see as the three biggest issues that need to be addressed to increase diversity, why is this problem persisting, and what should be done?
What Do You See as the Three Biggest Issues?
Fredette framed this lack of progress as a larger societal issue that affects organizations of all types. For example, he pointed out that Google has spent millions of dollars to increase diversity and inclusion yet produced very limited results. What he sees as the essential issue that must first be recognized is the need to redefine ourselves as a society. What does it mean to be in relationship with each other? How we can reconcile past wrongs of colonialization, given present realities? How can we create shared future aspirations? These tensions must be addressed explicitly to move forward. Second, diversification requires a redistribution of power. It is up to the social sector to take leadership in this redistributive process, because a primary reason the sector exists is to reshape social norms and values in ways that increase equity and social cohesion. Third, we must acknowledge and reconcile divides that polarize us, particularly rural/urban and white/indigenous. He shared the example of how some rural towns have become “news deserts.” The disappearance of historic small-town newspapers has made it more difficult for rural communities to maintain the social capital they have historically enjoyed.
McCambridge described how the Nonprofit Quarterly is working to challenge the sector to talk openly about governance and inclusiveness. She has witnessed a variety of strategies that people and organizations use to avoid this conversation. Typically, they present “rational” reasons for how and why they are constrained to take action, but these have grown very thin. However, the truth is that nonprofit organizations consistently overcome monumental challenges when they muster the will. They accomplish this by mobilizing collective desire and attention. By focusing on limitations and constraints, what the organizations are saying in effect is that they do not want power to change, that they are not ready to grapple with what might happen as uncomfortable truths are surfaced.
Implicitly, these organizations recognize there is a cultural mountain to climb. Their lip service means they are fine staying at the homogeneous basecamp rather than risking the ascent to the higher elevation of equity in their own organizations. McCambridge noted that many larger organizations in both the private and nonprofit sectors have diversity officers, yet these positions tend to serve largely as window dressing for pseudo-change. They provide cover for companies to say they are addressing diversity and inclusion issues. However, without providing funding or formal authority to enact changes, these diversity officers are often left essentially powerless.
To catalyze real change, new conversations need to happen. First, a revised narrative needs to be created around power and power differentials. How do we define these concepts? Who has power now? How do we ideally envision power being distributed? Second, more research should be conducted to identify the extent to which non-diversification and pseudo-change are happening. In this way, pressure can be applied to hold organizations accountable for their inaction and ineffectiveness. Third, we need to name the dynamics that are being experienced. The current state of affairs has everything to do with interpretation of to whom we feel we are accountable.
Taylor shared how his experience as a black male CEO of a nonprofit organization showed him that people struggle to truly value diversity, equity, and inclusion. He recommends a three-part strategy. First, numbers tell the story and get attention, so it is important to have quantitative data. Second, those data need to be supported with qualitative stories that give heart and soul to the injustice of the numbers. He shared his own story of how conflict with a wealthy, powerful white person led to stalled progress for his career, harmed the organization’s ability to realize its own mission, and set back the achievement of larger prosocial values of inclusion and equity. It is therefore urgent to make the case for why diversity is important. Third, he drew a parallel to fundraising: there, when targets are set and not met, people are held accountable. If organizations are truly committed to diversification, similar goal-setting and accountability mechanisms must be implemented.
Lee observed there has been little progress in diversity over the past few years, noting that in some areas, there has actually been regression. Besides the equity implications, these dynamics have performance consequences. Organizational science shows that lack of diversity creates blind spots in organizations,