In the CCS Philanthropic Climate Survey conducted in January 2021, many nonprofit leaders shared that the renewed societal focus on racial equity and social justice has activated their organization to begin taking the necessary steps to adjust their overall workplace policies and board activities.

An organization’s commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) is much bigger than individual silos of work or initiatives. To create meaningful impact, DEI must be a cornerstone of the organization’s mission and integrated into every facet of its work and culture. Many nonprofits are looking to diversify their board, aiming to understand what a focus on DEI means for their organization and board members. This is the beginning of a long, much-needed journey where everyone at your organization, including the board, can play a role and lead by example.

As you continue on this journey, consider the three key areas outlined below to ensure your board is diverse, inclusive, and equity-focused:

1) Assess the example your organization sets for the board

Consider creating a road map of how your organization as a whole will deploy DEI strategies and assess your efforts along the way, holding your organization accountable.

Take time to reflect on the following questions:

  • Is your strategic plan informed by ongoing feedback and guidance from the communities you exist to serve?
  • How are you creating an impact that is both deep and broad, understanding and working to solve the root causes of challenges facing the communities you serve?
  • How are you telling your organization’s story? What language and images are you using to honor the dignity of the communities you serve and avoiding the pitfalls of a savior complex?
  • Do your staff, board, and volunteer recruitment practices break down biases and intentionally seek out diversified perspectives and backgrounds?
  • How are you creating a work environment that embraces diverse cultures and perspectives, allowing your team to be present in their authentic self?
  • Are your staff, board, and volunteers reflective of the communities you serve or partner with?
  • Are you creating regular and frequent space for open discussions and education around DEI, supporting your team to be comfortable with being uncomfortable?
  • Have you created a DEI commitment statement? If so, has it been shared with your board and the broader community?

2) Cultivate a strong board culture that celebrates differences

The culture of a nonprofit board can define how work is carried out and the role the board plays in an organization’s mission. Individual volunteers provide their time, talent, and treasure because they have a connection to or passion for the cause. Open communication, trust, respect, accountability, and transparency among fellow board members and organizational leadership are crucial to success. Organizations must understand the complete identity of their board members to effectively engage and collaborate.

As you progress on your DEI journey, don’t forget to bring your board members along. The board chair sets the tone and cultivates the board culture through leading by example as it relates to how the board operates. A strong board culture doesn’t just happen overnight—it takes time and patience to cultivate. It is important to reflect on how inclusive your board culture is, what blind spots might exist, and what opportunities lie ahead.

Questions to consider:

  • Does your board have regular and ongoing conversations about diversity, equity, and inclusion?
  • What education opportunities exist in your current structure or need to be added in order to guide the board in meaningful DEI work?
  • When it comes to building a diverse board that truly reflects the community that your organization serves, what is the process for identifying these individuals? Is it inclusive?
  • Does your organization acknowledge, value, encourage, and leverage the different perspectives and life experiences of board members to create action plans on how to advance your mission or purpose?
  • How might you foster an environment that ensures board members reflect, listen, and learn from one another's experiences?
  • Are you providing opportunities for your board members to identify and process their blind spots and/or unconscious biases?
  • How is your board creating accountability to measure DEI progress and success?
  • How can the board adapt to better support the work that needs to be accomplished in the most impactful way?

3) Board composition and diversity: working to represent the communities served

A nonprofit’s board composition can either help or hinder how connected an organization is to the community they have set out to serve. It can signal if the organization values the perspectives, needs, and priorities of the community. While many organizations acknowledge the need to focus on building and recruiting a diverse board, the makeup of these leadership bodies across the country remains unchanged. According to BoardSource’s 2021 Leading with Intent report, less than 17% of board chairs identify as Black, indigenous, and/or people of color (BIPOC), and only 22% of board members nationally identify as Black, indigenous, and/or people of color.

Acknowledging the shortfall is only the first step to making change. Diversity is not a box your organization can check off and forget about. Think bigger and avoid the common pitfalls of tokenism by being proactive instead of reactive when it comes to ensuring everyone has a seat at the table. It will require implementing intentional DEI policies and practices to recruitment efforts in order to diversify board leadership. Diversity must move from intentionality to actuality and eventually be ingrained into your organization’s DNA. Take the time to honestly acknowledge where your organization sits on this diversity spectrum.

Diversity is much more than the color of one’s skin. It involves cultural backgrounds, lived experiences, skillsets, and viewpoints that an individual can bring to an organization. But one unifying tenet that should always remain constant in your search for board members is finding individuals who are aligned with your organization’s values.

As you take the next step to diversify your board, here are some key questions to consider:

  • Why is it important to your organization to build board diversity?
  • Does your current board composition show the community your commitment to understanding their needs?
  • Identify any gaps: what skillsets, perspectives, and identities are you missing on your current board?
  • Determine the key traits or characteristics of those in the community you serve. Compare these traits to the traits of your current board. What is missing?
  • How are you expanding your reach and recruiting candidates from diverse backgrounds and experiences? Are you choosing new diversity-focused websites or organizations to promote the opportunity?
  • How are you describing the organization’s focus on diversity with potential board candidates?

Final Thoughts

These three focus areas and key questions are a starting point to engage in thoughtful conversations with leadership, key volunteers, and board members on how DEI can and should be prioritized within your board. Take the time to be intentional in building a board culture where everyone’s perspective matters, where the diversity of your board reflects the communities you serve, and in which your approach to diversity aligns with your organization’s values. Understanding why diversity matters to your organization, board, and community is the foundation to becoming more diverse, equitable, and inclusive.

Your organization may find these additional resources helpful on your journey:

About the Author

Courtney Labetti, Senior Director at CCS Fundraising, brings a breadth of experience in higher education and nonprofit fundraising, specializing in major gift strategy development, comprehensive donor relations programs, corporate and foundation engagement, strategic marketing, and capital campaigns. Courtney holds the Certified Fund Raising Executive (CFRE) credential. She earned her BA in Strategic Communications from Butler University and Masters in Marketing from the University of Illinois at Chicago.