6 Steps for Building a More Diverse Nonprofit Board of Directors

by | Jan 18, 2022 | Announcements

When I served as CEO of the tri-counties Girl Scouts, we had a saying. “When I look at you, do I see me?” That question kept us on track for ensuring that people who served on our board of directors reflected the communities we served. Nowadays, that question is more important than ever.


Recent California state legislation requires greater diversity on corporate boards to include a certain number of women and people from “underrepresented communities,” which means people of several races and ethnic groups and people who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender.

But what does that mean for nonprofit boards?

The popular resource, BoardSource, reports that “there are more than 1.5 million nonprofit organizations in America, and yet: about eight percent of all nonprofit board members identify as minorities, with three of ten boards not reporting service from a single director of color. Only about 1 in 5 millennials serve on a board.”

While there are not yet any formal requirements dictating board diversity for nonprofits, including a broader scope of board membership is now considered to be a best practice for most charities.

Many organizations are actively recruiting board members from a wider, more diverse audience because they recognize the importance of including people from the communities they serve. Additionally, some foundations and other funding sources are requiring, or at least encouraging, a high level of diversity on nonprofit boards. Many employees have similar expectations.

The New York Times tells us, “Proponents of greater diversity argue that female and nonwhite board members bring different experience and knowledge, especially about the needs of the population they serve. A board with broad diversity will be better equipped to live out its mission and serve their constituents.”

Another popular resource, Wild Apricot, points out that board members should be able to understand the needs of the people their organization serves. “A diverse nonprofit board that includes people of all genders, races, ages, sexual orientations, cultural backgrounds and levels of ability, will consider a variety of perspectives and ultimately make more informed decisions.

Organizations that lack a diverse board of directors lack those perspectives and are often at odds with the very mission they set out to accomplish.”

Whatever helps a nonprofit deliver its mission more effectively, makes a good business case.

But knowing where to start and how to find diverse board members can be tricky. Historically, people who serve on boards tend to recruit their friends and colleagues who usually look, and act just like them. Some people complain that there aren’t enough women and nonwhite people qualified to be directors, a phenomenon often described as a “pipeline” problem.

But organizations that are intent on expanding their ranks are discovering that a big talent pool of nonwhite people and women for board seats does exist. Some are actually hiding in plain sight.

Blue Avocado points out that achieving board diversity isn’t easy because discussions about diversity are difficult to engage in. “The topics of race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation evoke deeply felt, complex emotions, and participants in the discussion frequently have quite different points of view.

These discussions, though they may be difficult, are an important part of the way a board develops its values and vision and provide a unique platform where individuals can develop their own thinking in a deeper and more nuanced way.”

BoardSource suggests that a good place to start the process is with a diversity audit of your board. Notice where you need to grow or expand and embrace it. If your board has 20 directors but only four women, one person of color, and no one under 35, you must address this when recruiting.

Next, integrate diversity into your organization’s strategic plan and weave it throughout your culture at all levels. Some organizations find it helpful to amend their bylaws to state that a certain percentage of their board must come from the population they serve.

This can suggest a commitment to action, rather than just giving lip service to the idea of diversity.

Dr. Anne Petersen, executive director of the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation (SBTHP), engaged her board in an effective audit by collecting demographic information and publishing it on GuideStar. This information now serves as a benchmark SBTHP can use to see how well their board reflects the demographics of the community.

In addition, their board nominating committee considers this information when recruiting for new board members. Petersen says a commitment to increasing diversity is not just about creating a policy statement. “It is about changing your organization and living out the principles every day.”

Jarrod Schwartz, founder and principal for Equity Praxis Group, is actively involved in helping organizations improve their board diversity. He says, “It’s encouraging to see more and more organizations drafting statements to capture their commitment to DEIJ (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, Justice).

It’s an important start to the work. The next step (and really, the step that should come first) is, to answer the question: ‘How do we live out this commitment?’ That’s the more difficult task.”

Many boards are stumped when it comes to finding diverse board members. Here are some ideas to help you get started.

Get out of your comfort zone.

>>Talk to some banking and other business executives and ask if they would be willing to inform their junior executives that your nonprofit is recruiting potential new board members. Many up-and-coming businesspeople would love to serve on a board but don’t know where to start. These junior executives will often be younger, sometimes nonwhite, and eager to move up in their career by getting more involved with the community.

>>Visit a local Provisors meeting, leads club, Young Professionals group, the Chamber of Commerce, or the Hispanic Chamber to invite members to find out more about joining a nonprofit board. They will understand how being a board member can enhance their career and benefit their community.

>>Be sure to emphasize skills over title. People want to feel like you’re recruiting them because of their passion for your mission, not because they check a demographic box.

Make your pitch.

>>Write up a short message that highlights the good work of your organization and how it is serving a unique and important mission.

>>Deliver your pitch verbally in person and in writing. Use card stock to make a small flyer you can leave behind with your pitch and contact information.

>>Make sure the language you use is inclusive, so everyone feels invited to respond.

Communicate clear expectations.

>>Many of the people you approach may not have served on a board. So, create a short but clear description of what board membership entails.

>>Give them basic information like how much time they can expect to spend, how you need them to become involved, attendance criteria, and any financial expectations.

Date before marriage.

>>Do all you can to make them feel welcome. Ask lots of questions so you can get to know them better. Ask about their needs and expectations.

>>Invite them to serve on a committee first, if they prefer, so they can get to know the organization before joining the board.

>>If possible, stage a get acquainted gathering with a few potential recruits and a few board and staff members so they can get to know you better.

>>Match them up with a “board buddy” who can answer questions and help them feel welcome and included.

Conduct basic board training.

>>It’s good to include several current board members as well as new recruits. New members need to learn the basics since they may not have served on a board before and seasoned members can always use a brush up.

Align new diversity strategies with your culture.

>>It’s admirable and smart to intentionally increase your board diversity but be sure to set the stage for recent board members to be successful in their new role.

>> Remember you are on uncharted territory and as Dr. Anne Petersen says, “It is about changing your organization and living out the principles every day.”

If you would like to discuss any of these ideas or brainstorm possibilities for increasing your board diversity, please feel free to contact me.