Ask the challenging questions needed to achieve alignment with diversity goals

by Erin Hedges, president, Hedges

Despite good intentions, there is still much diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) work to be done in the nonprofit boardroom. A June 2021 report from BoardSource indicates that while boards may be getting slightly more diverse, they are far from representing the communities they serve, and recruitment practices too often lack alignment with diversity goals.

At Hedges, we are challenging ourselves to question traditional board governance practices and identify new ways for organizations to create a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive board culture. Resulting from our learnings, we share three practices for nonprofit leaders to consider:

  1. DEI work should be grounded in an organization’s “why.” Too often, the purpose of recruiting diverse board members is to “check a box” provided by funders on a grant application. This narrow approach misses the opportunity for important board-driven conversations that can identify how diversity in representation, lived experiences, and perspectives can unlock greater potential for the organization. By taking time to uncover the reasons “why” an organization needs more diversity in the boardroom, boards can identify the specific purpose for board-led DEI efforts and create a collective responsibility to move these efforts forward.

To get started, BoardSource offers specific questions boards can ask themselves to explore an organization’s purpose for having a more diverse boardroom including:

  • Is our organization’s reputation being negatively (or positively) impacted by our board’s composition vis-à-vis diversity?
  • If someone were to make assumptions about our organizational values based on our board composition, what would they be likely to think?
  • How well are we cultivating a deeper understanding of the community or communities that we serve and bringing their perspectives, needs, feedback, and priorities into our strategic boardroom discussions?
  • Are we ever at risk of making decisions without fully understanding how these decisions may affect those we serve?
  • If we were to make a deeper commitment to diversity, inclusion, and equity, what would that mean for our mission, our work, and the people we serve?

Once the board can formulate responses to these types of questions, it will gain clarity as to “why” board diversity matters and what the organization has to gain. The board will have identified its purpose in developing a plan to recruit and successfully support more diverse members that can bring valuable, new contributions to discussions, deliberations, and decision-making for the organization.

  1. Bylaws can be a powerful DEI tool. Moving DEI intentions into action is key to successfully creating an inclusive boardroom. In addition to developing a plan to use as a playbook, board members can consider incorporating DEI provisions into the organization’s bylaws. Not only will these provisions guide and direct board members, but also provide accountability measures that will increase successful outcomes of these efforts.

Including DEI provisions in bylaws demonstrates that DEI is a core organizational value. NEO Law Group offers specific recommendations of how organizations can accomplish this. One of our favorites is stating the diversity goal from your plan (i.e., greater diversity in representation, lived experience, and perspectives) in your bylaws. A favorite focused on equity is including an equitable compensation provision that all employees should be paid a fair and reasonable wage. A favorite focused on inclusion is adding a Conduct of Meetings provision to allow directors other than the president to chair meetings. A full list of their recommendations can be found here.

To ensure these DEI commitments are reflected in an organization’s approved bylaws, review each section of the current bylaws and determine how they need to be revised to reinforce DEI commitments. Building these commitments into bylaws will provide accountability to organizational leadership in moving to more diverse, equitable, and inclusive board governance.

  1. Board member value should be viewed beyond what they can give or get. Historically, nonprofit organizations have relied on their board for fundraising and, in fact, we have recommended this practice many times over. But when boards set minimums for board member financial contributions and give/get policies, barriers based on a person’s “treasure” are created. At Hedges, we are challenging organizations to let go of the old giving and getting minimums and, instead, encourage individual giving amounts that are “personally meaningful” to each board member.

Organizations with giving minimums or give/get policies for board members should ask themselves what barriers to board diversity and inclusivity are these policies creating? What perspectives, lived experiences, or talents might we be missing on our board because of these policies?

That’s not to say that board members shouldn’t still be involved in fundraising. When training organizations to fundraise, we ask board members to identify a part of the fundraising process that aligns with their preferences and comfort level. Whether it is identifying potential donors, cultivating donor relationships, directly soliciting gifts, or providing donor stewardship, we have found that all board members are able to play a role in fundraising efforts. In this way, an organization acknowledges that a board member’s time and talent are as equally valuable as their treasure.

Creating change takes intentionality and patience, but the need for greater diversity, equity, and inclusion in our boardrooms is urgent. By taking time to figure out the “why,” building DEI commitments into bylaws, and valuing individuals for all that they bring to board membership, boards can lead the way to greater impact within their organization and community.

Erin Hedges is the founder and president of Hedges, an Indianapolis consulting firm that advances social change by strengthening Central Indiana’s philanthropic sector. Hedges is launching Lead with Purpose, a new training series to equip individuals for effective nonprofit board service. More information about Lead with Purpose can be found here.

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