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Today, there’s plenty of content and research on the importance of board diversity. And while some organizations have started on that path, many still struggle to make that journey. 

There’s a lot to know about what’s standing in the way of more board diversity (read the full guide below), but some organizations hesitate because they don’t know what this major undertaking looks like in practice. Similarly, these efforts often stall because of barriers introduced by governance that originated with the association's founding. 

Related: Everything You Need to Know About Board Diversity Learn More >

The Council of Landscape Architectural Registration Boards

Recently, Veronica Meadows, Chief Strategy Officer, and Andrea Elkin, PMO Manager, of the Council of Landscape Architectural Registration Boards, hosted a Sidecar Webinar titled “Diversify Your Board of Directors.”

They outlined the challenges their organization faced and the process it took to overcome outdated governance with the aim of improving their board diversity. We took some time to chat to dive deeper into CLARB’s challenges, process and outcomes as its staff continues to find and empower diverse leadership. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Can you tell me a little about the challenges you were facing in terms of board diversity and the pool of candidates? 

Andrea: When I came on board, the biggest thing we were seeing was in our eligibility requirements. Our leadership, our board and our nominating committee themselves have to come from our membership. Our membership is really small. At any given time, we've got somewhere between 400 and 500 members total in our organization. And then when we were dwindling down and looking at the numbers, we maybe had 75 people who were eligible and hadn't already served. And then we had to identify people who actually wanted to serve in a leadership position and were willing to nominate themselves. It would range from maybe 14 to 20 nominations for the year to fill eight spots within our leadership. We were seeing the shrinking number of nominations and people who were eligible, so we realized we needed to make some changes to increase that pool of candidates.

Veronica: There were also a couple of strategic-related challenges that we were beginning to face too that board diversity was maybe contributing to creating. As Andrea mentioned, our pool is small, and it was getting smaller. But our current leadership lacked diversity when diversity was becoming much more of a business imperative. Two-thirds of our board positions had been held by men since 2014, and less than 10% of our board was under the age of 55. Our board had never been ethnically or racially diverse, and member board service was the only path to leadership. Where that creates challenges is most of the individuals who were eligible to serve on their state or provincial board were just later in their careers. And the profession itself lacks diversity, particularly among the more senior or mature licensees, so we just had no diversity available to us. 

Many of these requirements stemmed from your bylaws. Is that where you started tackling the problem?

Veronica: In fact, it was quite the opposite. We didn't start with the bylaws at all. We started by asking, “What do we want our new governance structure, systems and processes to look like?” and worked toward how to make the bylaws align with this new design. That can be a bit of a hampering effect if you start out (changing bylaws). 

Andrea: Part of that was looking at the nomination process and how we could change that as well. Those goals of what we were looking for drove the conversations no matter what part of the organization we were talking about.

What conversations did it start within your organization?

Veronica: It started as a big strategic conversation with the board. How do we ensure effective leadership for the future? That big strategic conversation drove us to this exploration of governance and systems and processes that support the governance structure. It started at the board level, but I think they very wisely knew that they couldn't be the only folks engaged in the conversation and that we needed to include our nominating committee. There was a subgroup of the board that was working on this, then the nominating committee was tasked with portions of this. Then they came together, having membership conversations, exposing concepts and ideas along the way. 

Andrea: That process was a two-year process at least, and that last year was the board and the nominating committee coming together for the final recommendation for what the change was going to be. ​​The goals of our project were that we really wanted to create flexibility within our governance structure and processes, and we wanted to increase our pool of candidates and the diversity within those pools of candidates. 

What are some of the challenges that stem from changing older governance?

Veronica: For us, it was proposing pretty significant bylaw changes. We ran into challenges with the membership when it came to changing up the existing structure to something they weren't familiar with. We were moving from an all-elected board to a few elected positions and mostly appointed, so there was this perceived loss from the membership of their engagement in the process. That was a key challenge (because) there was lack of trust and fear of change, which created a bit of resistance.

Andrea: To give some context for how we changed, our entire board and nominating committee were previously elected by the membership. Currently, our president-elect goes on automatically to be president and past president, and our treasurer is elected. The rest of the 12-person board is appointed by our recommendations from the (nominating committee). Then, we increased our nominating committee from four members to six, knowing that they would have more work on their end to truly vet candidates and make recommendations for those appointed positions. 

Veronica: Those are the structural changes and they’re really important to point out, but then there was also the policy change, which were previously very restrictive eligibility requirements. The train of thought here was to make our eligibility as wide as we possibly can and let the needs of the organization dictate the perspectives we need, as opposed to creating a shrinking pipeline through requirements. Previously, you had to be on a licensing board, you had to be a licensed landscape architect, whereas now, the requirements are that the majority of the board must be licensed, and the president of the organization has to be licensed.

You mentioned it took two years to get these changes done. Were there any roadblocks?

Veronica: The first time our membership voted on the proposed changes, it failed. I will say it failed by one vote, and … 75% of the membership has to vote affirmatively in order for a bylaw change to pass. So, when you think about it, 74.875% of the membership was in favor of this change. We had really broad support, but it was hard for our leadership to have that first vote fail. It made us realize, okay, we've got to rethink how we're engaging our members on this. 

We developed a strategic engagement approach led by the volunteer leadership, and that was key to making this successful. The leaders were engaged in helping to explain the advantages of the change and really stopped talking as much and listening more. And the messaging, rather than focusing on loss of representation from your region or loss of engagement in your elections process, we started focusing more on the gain, like the leadership competencies we're going to be able to have at the table making good decisions for the organization in the future. 

Andrea: Being proactive in our outreach and talking with members about this was key to having enough support to cross the finish line the second time.

We’ve talked a little about how these changes happened, but in terms of diversifying nominees, how did CLARB address that?

Andrea: Once the bylaws changes passed, we had a ton of flexibility. We just had to have the majority of our board be licensed landscape architects, with the president being licensed. That first year, we didn't go too crazy. We didn't want to scare the membership too much. But we started outreach to some of our customers. Our membership base is really small, as I said, but we have quite a few thousand customers in that candidate, exam and licensee candidate population. So we started outreach to the licensed landscape architects within our customer base just as a start and we’ve been a bit more proactive in leveraging our partnerships with other landscape architecture organizations to (identify candidates).

As the years have gone on, we found that intentional outreach has been the best way to recruit really good quality leadership candidates because people who have served within our organization or worked with us closely know how we work as an organization and what we're looking for. 

One of the biggest things that we as an organization did was just educating ourselves by providing DE&I training for our staff, our leadership and our membership. We were better prepared for a more diverse leadership group. It's not just ‘how do we get people within the pipeline?” but “How do we onboard people who are not as familiar with the organization?” And then, “How do we continue to have a very collaborative, inclusive environment that we're working in for our leadership and our staff teams?” 

Now that you have some more of that diversity, what are some of the payoffs you've had? 

Veronica: Some of the new things we're doing have a very direct outcome. We have an increase in the number of nominations. Within our strategy, we have some global elements and now we have individuals sitting on our board who aren't even from this country who are helping to bring a global perspective into the conversations. Just having greater diversity of thought and perspective has had really positive impacts on the leadership team. 

If you're having conversations with people of all the same, or similar backgrounds and perspectives, it's the definition of insanity. You keep doing the same things over and over again, and you're going to get the same result. 

This year, 42% of our board members are nonwhite, and that's up from about 5% in 2020. The average age of our board members this year is 49. Previously, we had only 10% of our board members who were under the age of 55. 42% of our board members this year are female, and that's up from about 20 to 25%. Previously, there was only one seat available on our board for someone who wasn't licensed. And typically that was held by a member board executive or state or provincial staff member. Now, 25% of the members on our board are unlicensed.

Andrea: We had to create space to be able to have longer discussions. With more perspectives in the room, everybody was looking at things differently. The board, not that they didn't feel confident in their decision-making before, truly feel like they have thought about issues from all angles. I've seen more buy-in from the board and they feel confident and are good ambassadors for the decisions they're making, and that carries on when they're having conversations with members.

Any advice for associations looking to take on a similar initiative?

Veronica: It's not for the faint of heart. The point here is that the leadership buy-in and support of going in this direction is so important. Figure out the best way for your organization to do that. Maybe it's through doing an initial assessment, maybe it's through having listening sessions. There are multiple ways to identify where there might be opportunities for improvement. 

And just understanding that it's going to take a lot of effort and engaging your membership. Change is scary but it can be done. When you get to the other side, the reward is not quantifiable. You see so much improvement not only in the board members' experiences but the work that they do and the depth and breadth of how they're tackling and addressing each of these issues. Seeing this actually happening now and reaping the benefits of that work is probably one of the most rewarding things I've been engaged in my entire career. 

Andrea: The project manager in me would say the lessons learned from this project have applied to other projects that we've worked on. We had a big project that got voted on by the membership this past April, and had we not failed in this governance changes vote the first time, I don't think that this other project would have been successful. We learned we have to be proactive. We can't just sit back and assume members understand things, and that was a huge learning for us on how we work on things going forward as an organization. 

The other thing is that this is an incremental change over time, and it is our culture at CLARB that we are constantly looking to improve. It was okay to see these little things along the way, but even though we've had big changes over the last couple of years, we're constantly continuing to revise the things that we can and improve those from year to year. 

It doesn't mean that it has to be these big things every year. We just continue to do what we can each year to make it a little bit better than last year. That's a small thing people can do: Ask, what are the things you can change? If you don't want to take on something big – I mean, I won't discourage you – but if you feel like you're not ready for that, what are the things you can change? And make those little simple changes.

Jose Triana
Post by Jose Triana
November 18, 2022
Jose Triana is a writer and creative focused on helping purpose-driven organizations learn and find value online. When he isn't working on content, you can catch him going for a run or resting with a good book.