Board Diversity – Representing the Populations You Serve

By Marcela Garcia, Associate Director of Governance & Board Leadership

I have sat around many board tables—through my work serving on non-profit boards as well as an adviser—analyzing systems, structures, and culture and how these affect organizational operations. Through my observations and my lived experience, the lack of diversity of folks around those tables is still alarming—whether that is a metric that looks at race, gender, age, sexual orientation, or expertise. However, this is not new information since not much of a dent has been made to change this in the last decade. We know that board diversity is lagging in almost every sector, non-profit and corporate. Within the non-profit sector 86% of nonprofit board members nationwide are White.

Diversity in the Boardroom

With 30 years since the court-ordered school desegregation was implemented in Milwaukee, students of color composed 86.4% of the 2013-2014 student enrollment within our public school district; 93.8% of the enrollment at independent charter schools; and 78% of private school enrollment for the same school year. With student demographics like these, it is only natural to question why the board representation of these institutions do not resemble the populations they serve. The education system in my city continues to be inequitable for countless kids and youth. Especially for those kids living at or below the poverty level, and for brown and black kids. The socioeconomic disparities in Milwaukee are very visible. As a result, the challenges with board service can be very intimidating, and at times, uncomfortable.

Here are four tips to keep in mind as you are reflecting on your board service, or on your interest to get involved.

1.       The savior mentality is dangerous. As leaders, we not only have to acknowledge our privilege, but learn how to challenge it within ourselves and to others. Our function as a board member is not to “save” the communities in which we work. Marginalized communities are not empty vessels that are waiting for your pouring—stop flattering yourself.

2.       Representation is not enough. Just because a board is tracking the progress of the numbers (number of women, African-Americans, Latinos, LGTBQ, under 30 years old, etc.) on the board does not mean that it is addressing gaps within its structure, nor creating a culture that embraces diversity as an organizational value. Keep in mind that bringing diverse leadership on board will not single-handedly empower the marginalized. It’s not just about the numbers, people!

3.       Finding leadership for your board is not like ordering a hamburger. “I’ll take a young Black or Latino, with a side of some board service.” Doesn’t that just sound awful? Remember that the characteristics that contribute to diversity can be either visible or invisible. When considering new board members, it is important to aim to build bridges that connect your organization to networks that perhaps have not before been built or crossed. Being intentional and keeping the future needs of your organization in mind while considering perspective board members is important.

4.       If it’s not in the organization fabric, it will not be sustainable. The value of what diversity brings to an organization has to be operative and integrated into the fabric of the organization. Institutional buy-in has to happen for long-term sustainability. This is not the responsibility of one person in the organization, nor that of a committee. There has to be a plan to insure that this diverse leadership is involved, respected, valued, and connected to the mission of the organization.

As the second year of Board Corps comes to an end, I am very hopeful that PAVE’s Board Corps Program will continue to make a difference in the way boards are built and sustained. Since 25% of our program applicants self-identified as a racial/ethnic minority, 51% as women, and 64% as 40 years and younger, I am confident that change will begin to be felt and seen across many more board tables in Milwaukee.

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