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Everything You Need to Know About Board Diversity

image Jose Triana image imageNovember 04, 2022 image image3 min. to read
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Everything You Need to Know About Board Diversity

For organizations everywhere, DEI remains top of mind. It’s led to creating roles like Chief Diversity Officer and countless studies that help us understand the headway we’ve made, along with some of the most significant gaps. While we are seeing more diversity in association leadership and membership, most boards rarely share the same makeup, and little is being done to make changes to the bylaws and thinking that got us here. 

So what does board diversity mean, how do we achieve it and what are the major roadblocks impacting the association industry? Here’s everything you need to know about board diversity.

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Associations and Their Boards

There’s a lot to know about the intricacies of an association’s board of directors. But for the purpose of this topic, the one thing to remember is that they’re responsible for conceptualizing an organization's future and planning the overall strategy to get there.

Related: Everything You Need to Know About Boards of Directors
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This is critical when discussing diversity and inclusion, as a lack of diversity in thought among the people who are planning an organization’s strategy and goals can impact members' and staffers’ future. Whether knowingly or not, the board sets the tone for the organizational culture that sometimes stands in the way of these efforts. Additionally, with the power (in some organizations) to appoint new board members, staff leadership and committee heads, they have a direct hand in challenging diversity efforts in the most integral roles in our organizations. 

What Is Board Diversity?

When we think about diversity, we often focus on factors like race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation. However, it often goes deeper than that and should include life experience, education, beliefs and even ideals that influence how people think, act and interact with the world.

This is particularly important for associations and nonprofits that often represent and work with diverse communities, industries and members. According to a 2021 study from Leading with Intent, “almost half (49%) of all chief executives said that they did not have the right board members to ‘establish trust with the communities they serve.’”

And why is this the case? Because, more often than not, association boards do not represent their constituents. According to the same study, 78% of board members were white, 47% were male and 94% were heterosexual or straight. 

Diversity Misconceptions

Part of the problem with implementing a board diversity strategy is that there often needs to be more clarity about how and why. For example, the kinds of thinking that can stand in the way of a frank discussion might be comments or opinions like:

  • “We can wait for diversity to naturally work itself out.“
  • “Having one or two diverse members of the board is enough.” 
  • “Board diversity has no impact on the bottom line of the organization.”
  • “Our members don’t care about the board structure so long as the association provides value.” 
  • “By purposefully adding diverse members, we’re lowering the standard for board qualifications.”

However, there is often a counterpoint for each of these points. For starters, diversity will likely never work itself out without intentionality. Why? Because if your members do not see themselves represented on the board, they won’t be members of your association in the long run, which means your board candidate pool will shrink even further as members churn or look for organizations that better represent them. 

Similarly, board diversity, and diverse leadership for that matter, have been proven to have an impact on the bottom line. According to a study from BoardReady, companies with over 30% of board seats held by women had 54% YoY revenue growth, while companies with at least 30% of board seats held by non-white directors saw a 4% increase in YoY revenue growth. 

Finally, the generalization of lowering standards for board members in hopes of diversity is a false narrative. 

“What we need is a more comprehensively diverse set of possible candidates for our boards who do not face the obstacles to get to a place where they can be a candidate,” says Jeff De Cagna, FRSA, FASAE, Executive Advisor of Foresight First LLC. “And not (say something like), ‘Okay, we're going to lower the requirements because we need to make our board more diverse.’ That's incredibly insulting. This is not about making it easier for people. We have to make it equitable for everyone to be able to be fully judged based solely on what they're going to bring to the table and eliminate those barriers that have been built up over time to make sure that we were giving them every opportunity to get to that place.” 

Why Are Diverse Boards Beneficial?

Outside of the data-backed benefits of board diversity, there are other ways it can impact and influence the success and strategy of your association. 

  • They Provide New Perspectives – It can be difficult for organizations to make a decision or create new strategies with the same insights and experiences that have always populated their boards. One of the most significant benefits of having diversity on the board is gaining access to that view – from life experience to strategies outside of your industry – diversity in perspective can have a major impact. 
  • They Keep Your Members Engaged – More than ever, people want to associate with and spend their money with “companies and organizations that mirror their belief system and values,” says Roberto Quinones, Founder & Moderator of DC Hispanic Employee Network. “So, associations that are not taking that into account, how welcoming they may be, how the demographics of their stakeholders are, and what they’re proactively doing to match that, could be placing themselves out of existence.”
  • They Represent Your Member Demographics – In most cases, your board may never be as diverse as your members. But even if it is, that shouldn’t be the stopping point, or an excuse. “A lot of organizations think they want their boards to reflect the diversity of their membership. And I don't think that goes far enough, because so many organizations are not as diverse as the country is,” says De Cagna. “We need the diversity on boards and associations not to reflect the diversity of membership, but truly reflecting the diversity of the US as a country and where it’s headed as we move deeper into this century.”

The Roadblocks to Association Board Diversity

So we know that board diversity is vital to your organization's future and critical for engaging, empowering and even growing your member base, but why aren’t more organizations making bigger strides? For associations, there are a multitude of roadblocks slowing down the process. 

Governance 

Bylaws and governance are a uniquely nonprofit-specific requirement that is often the crux of board diversity issues. Governance can restrict how board members are selected, the qualifications they need and how long they are required to serve, among other rules and regulations. 

Related: What it takes to update governance documents for a 172-year-old association
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“A very problematic area for associations when it comes to building boards that represent more diversity, is we have not really unpacked the equity questions in terms of how people get invited to serve, the accessibility of serving on the board, the selection methodology, and the way that ultimately decisions get made about who serves and who doesn't serve,” says De Cagna. 

“There are all kinds of equity issues that are embedded in bylaws and governing documents, and the underlying processes and policies and practices that are built upon governing documents. So many sets of bylaws and governing documents were originally created 50, 75 or 100 years ago, and even if they've been updated, they've not been comprehensively modernized to be able to overcome some of the orthodoxy and embedded ways of doing business that were created when the organization was first founded.”

And to make matters worse, these documents are also increasingly difficult to change, making them one of the first things associations will likely need to address — and also one of the most challenging hurdles. 

Legacy Beliefs & Biases

Associations have been around long enough to have experienced failed initiatives, built preferences for specific backgrounds and experiences or simply have that “that’s how we’ve always done it” mentality. 

However, these legacy beliefs can also form biases that prevent qualified candidates from making it onto the board. 


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  • Confirmation Bias – Confirmation bias is when someone judges an initiative based on past experiences and results. And while this may happen in associations, the fact of the matter is their membership is constantly evolving. “(Boards) feel that they know the members,” says Danielle Duran Baron, MA, MBA, CAE, Vice President, Marketing, Communications & Industry Relations for the School Nutrition Association. “They really don't. Because members change, and they come and go.” This is often the lens through which diversity initiatives are observed. While there may have been a failed effort or initiative years ago, that doesn’t mean it’ll fail today. “Oh, we tried and it didn't work. Oh, we tried and nobody responded, so that's why we don't have them on our board,” Baron continued. “That was 15 years ago, and this is a whole new world today. It's a crutch for association executives.”
  • Affect Heuristic Bias – Pre-existing notions and emotional responses to candidates are known as affect heuristic bias. When it happens, “we take a shortcut to how we think about potential candidates,” says Pamela Green, MBA, SPHR, PCC, ICC, President & CEO Pamela J Green Solutions. “This will show up with those individuals who are outside of the norm for our board members. Whatever I think about that person, I'll just take a shortcut based on something that they might have said or done or how they should up.” This can be anything from a candidate's name, a school they may have attended or even if the interviewer is having a bad day. 
  • Similarity Attraction Bias – Part of the problem with a non-diverse board is that they perpetuate that lack of diversity. Similarity attraction bias is when people look to surround themselves with people they are similar to or have a rapport with. Naturally, this can mean gender, culture, educational background or experience. So when your committee or board members are looking at board candidates through that lens, diversity falls by the wayside. Similarly, candidates may not be inclined to apply as they don’t see themselves represented on the board.  

Candidate Requirements

While biases often depend on the person interviewing or selecting board candidates, requirements are the passive roadblocks that exist even earlier in the process, and they often stem from our governance or bylaws.

  • Education – Whether it’s a college degree or specific certification, educational requirements can be problematic. While you want your candidates to be qualified and experienced, finding new ways to quantify that is important. “A lot of associations (ask for) a college degree. And from an equity standpoint, do we really need one?” says Duran Baron. “Steve Jobs wouldn't be able to serve, or Bill Gates, or all the amazing people out there.”
  • Membership Status – Another problem can stem from requirements around membership. “We need to be able to include diverse directors on our boards so that we are getting the benefit of different ways of seeing the world, different life experiences, and different ways of thinking,” says De Cagna. “And we need to be looking for those ideas no matter where they come from. We should not be making the assumption that all of the capacity, all the talent, all of the diversity and all the richness of that is going to be present within our membership.” 

Leaky Pipelines

The path to a board seat can be complex, particularly if your governance puts the power in the hands of existing board members. One of the biggest issues that comes up in this situation is a “leaky” or “dry” candidate pipeline. 

This can happen for a number of reasons, including:

  • Candidates don’t know how to get on the board.
  • There is no clear explanation of qualifications or requirements. 
  • Board placement is dependent on member nominations. 
  • Existing board members have a limited network. 
  • The commitment to board responsibilities is never outlined.

In some instances, it’s also simply that people don’t want to serve on your board for a number of the reasons listed already. “It's not that you can’t find them, it's that they don't want to come play with you. They don't want to be on your board because they're not going to waste their time,” says Quinones. “They're out there. The ideal (situation) is they're seeking to join because they know, ‘Hey you're a great organization, you're the leader in your field and this mission, and I want to volunteer for your organization because I believe in your mission and I trust what you're doing.’ So, if they're not knocking on your door, you have to ask yourself, why aren’t they?”

Board Culture

Even if you were to start diversifying your board, the reality is the challenges don’t end there. “Getting a diverse person in a seat is easy. It's the stuff around them that's more difficult,” says Green. “It's the culture of the board that has been shaped over years that needs some churning out. And that's what really takes a lot more time and patience and the board holding itself accountable.”

Things like succession planning to ensure diversity should remain a priority for the board, adding different voices to speakers and vendors, creating a welcoming environment that sets up your new board members for success to ensure they have an impact and, more importantly, understanding that achieving a diverse board will not not solve all your problems. 

7 Strategies for Building Intentional Board Diversity

Understanding the roadblocks is only half of the solution. In order for associations to make true strides in building board diversity, they need a strategy and intentionality. Luckily, there are plenty of strategies your organization can use to get started. 

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1. Assess Your Current Situation

The starting point for any association is going to be understanding the current makeup and blindspots for your board of directors. Some of the questions you should be asking are:

  • What governance issues (if any) do we have that are limiting our candidate pool?
  • What strides have we already made in our diversity efforts? 
  • What does our membership look like and who/what areas are we serving? 
  • What do/don’t we know about diversity as a topic?

This often starts with self-reflection on the leadership side and asking tough questions. “I always encourage leaders, boards and executives to first have some training about what diversity, equity and inclusion are …  when it comes to a board perspective,” says Green. “Then let's have the conversation about assessing where we are. If we know that diversity and inclusion from a board perspective equals this, then let's take a look around and let's have a real dialogue about what's not in place, what's missing for us, and what our role is to help drive the business.”

2. Fix the Pipeline

Candidate pipeline is often an easy way to dismiss a lack of diversity. It’s easy to think that diversifying your board pipeline is difficult, that no one is interested in the position, or that only unqualified applicants are applying. Yet, this is often not the reality. 

“When I hear, ‘Oh, we have a problem with the pipeline,’ that's like a trigger,” says Duran Baron. “There's no pipeline problem, chances are, you're looking at the wrong pipeline. Because there are plenty of smart people, but they are in a different group than the one that you’re mostly tapping into, you just have to look elsewhere.” 

Whether that means looking at a different pool – like those without all the common experience or even folks who aren't yet members – working with minority-focused organizations or even working with your existing members to help identify and empower diverse leaders. 

Similarly, look at your descriptions and requirements. Are they all necessary? Is there some verbiage that may be dissuading people from even throwing their hats in the ring? There are plenty of places to shore up your pipeline; it simply takes intentionality. 

3. Partner with Other Organizations

As with the pipeline issue, knowing where to find diverse candidates can be a challenge. One way to take the guesswork out is by working with other organizations. For starters, there is likely a multitude of organizations and associations that serve your same industry – and many are formed as subsets specific to underrepresented groups. 

Partnering “with other associations and establishing a process in which first-time board members, like diverse candidates, are given the opportunity to serve on boards. And there's a pipeline that is generated from association to association to give people the opportunity to serve in important volunteer roles,” says Green. 

4. Find Organizational Allies 

To say that the modern workplace is polarizing can be a wild understatement. For boards that are less inclined to initiate a board diversity discussion, that responsibility often falls on the executive director, CEO or staff. However, it’s important to know how to broach these conversations and who to talk to. 

“If there are people on your board that are nowhere near that (interested in board diversity), they're going to hear trigger words and forget it,” Quinones says. "You just went backward." That means, according to Quinones, you'll have to do double the work to bring someone up to speed and then push them past an initial boundary. 

So before approaching your board, be sure to know who is already invested in these initiatives and who you can become that ally to facilitate difficult board conversations. 

5. Become a Mentor for Future Leaders

Whether you’re on the board or are a respected leader in an organization, knowing the influence you have is critical. If part of the problem with board diversity is bringing candidates to the table, taking an intentional approach to investing in other professionals is ideal. 

Related: Everything You Need to Know About Mentorship
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This can mean giving or finding them opportunities to join a committee, lead a specific project or initiative or simply introducing them to the major players in the organization. 

You need to think about “how are you championing and fostering your bench,” says Quinones. “How are you lining up your space so that when you nominate this person of color to the board, people don't go, ‘Oh, come on, really? You're pandering, that's a token,’” and instead they remember the role they’ve already played in other initiatives, making it easier for them to be accepted in a larger role. 

6. Focus On Organizational-Wide Diversity 

Changing the makeup of your board of directors is an important step, but those initiatives need to flow into every aspect of your organization. Diversity needs to act as a guide throughout your organization. 

“You have to do other things to signal that this is an inclusive organization because otherwise, you have this dissonance,” says Duran Baron. “Even if you're able to build this utopic board that looks like the United Nations, if everywhere else in the organization, you don't see that, then it's still not authentic.”

Building that authenticity can include diversifying the speakers you choose for your conferences, the leaders you highlight in your newsletter or awards, and the folks who become the face of your organization. All those points of visibility not only foster inclusivity but set the tone that your organization is truly embracing diversity at all levels. 

7. Work With Your Membership

Finally, and often most importantly, add transparency to the process by tapping your members for their feedback and expertise. While having goals is important for any initiative an organization undertakes – what gets measured gets managed. As such, expressing these goals to your membership can help foster authenticity and accountability. 

One way for boards to do this is to say, “we're going to go out, and we're going to tell our members, we're looking to be more transparent in our recruiting efforts. And we want a more diverse board because we want a board that is reflective of the changes in society,” says Green. “Why not allow them to weigh in? Give us your best thoughts and your best suggestions for how we could go about doing this. So now you bring them into the process, they're gonna be way more supportive and feel like the board has already begun to meet its commitment to be a more diverse and inclusive board.” 

What Diversity Means to the Future of Associations

The bottom line is diversity is essential – there’s no questioning that. As associations look to build inclusivity, remain relevant and plan for the future, being intentional about your board diversity is one of the most important starting points. 

The challenge is being able to overcome existing barriers. Whether that’s outdated governance, the biases (known and unknown) of your current board and also ruling out many of the misconceptions that give people pause when trying to come up with a diversity plan. More importantly, it takes a real reckoning and understanding of the boards' role in associations. 

“If what we are saying at all times to directors and officers is that their only jobs are to review spreadsheets, provide oversight on budgets and micromanage the details of the budget … then I can understand why they might see it differently,” says De Cagna. “But that's not at all what they are, that's just a small piece of what they do. The bigger picture is we're entering the fourth year of what has already been a massively turbulent decade. And it's not getting any easier. And we need to be serious about how we're going to move organizations through the turbulence. And as part of this, ensure we have the best possible composition of our board.”The fact of the matter is that diversity at any level in the organization takes intentionality and work – but it's something that needs to happen and one of the places where it can have the biggest impact is on your board of directors.

Jose Triana joined the Sidecar team as the Content Manager in 2021. He 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.

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