We are collectively experiencing another face-off with the visible and visceral evidence of racial injustice and inequities that are allowed and protected through racist systematic policies and structural practices that both dominate and limit the human rights of black people in America.

During these times, executives and board leaders from the nonprofit, philanthropic, and faith-based sectors should be running towards the fires of these injustices, standing ready to face these issues through direct advocacy and support of battered, grieving, and marginalized communities who are demanding reform and justice.

In 1965 James Baldwin wrote;

“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

Nonprofit leaders have a leadership imperative to face the issues of inequities within the communities that you serve. Board members must face the clear evidence of racial disparities and social injustices. Achieving meaningful impact is dependent on understanding and engaging in transformational advocacy around the issues of inequity.

So what can boards do to intentionally lead on diversity, equity and inclusion? Here are five tips to help you get started:

#1 Intentionally Assemble a Diverse Board of Directors 

Boards have to be intentional about assembling a diverse and inclusive board of directors. Now more than ever, boards should be partners to, and a part of the communities they serve. Likewise, board membership should reflect the diversity of the community.

When the board is composed of diverse members they are better able to understand the voices and perspectives of the community, their concerns, and their interests and, ultimately, join the community as a partner in the strategies they are seeking to implement.

One of the persistent performance gaps for many boards is a lack of diversity.

BoardSource’s Leading with Intent 2017 data determined that boards were no more diverse in 2017 than in 2015. Leading with Intent 2017 data indicated that 90 percent of nonprofit chief executives are white, 90% of board chairs are white, as are 84 percent of nonprofit board members, and 27% of all nonprofit boards are entirely white. This data shows no improvement from the LWI 2015 data which found that 89% of executives were white, 80% of board members were white and 25% of boards were entirely white.

For a board to perform at its highest level, board diversity, and inclusion needs to be approached as a top priority. Boards have to stop relying on their traditional practices that are based on recruiting from within the inner circles of those currently on the board and recruiting from the same stream of community leaders that circulate on boards throughout our communities. These practices serve to ignore eligible board candidates of color.

#2: Build Awareness and Understanding 

Board members must spend time listening and engaging in open discussions about diversity, equity and inclusion. Responsible board leaders spend time working diligently to understand both historical and current disparities, injustices and inequities related to their mission, community and those that are served.

Understanding your community’s data, disaggregated by demographics, combined with information about inequities will help board members to understand the impact of systematic racism.

#3: Understand Your Implicit Bias

 In general, most people have not pushed themselves to examine their own blind spots and to develop the “mental muscle” to overcome them. We are all subject to a multitude of blind spots typically called unconscious bias, that affects our beliefs, perceptions and reactions to people from groups that are different than ours.

Since 1998 The Implicit Association Test has allowed people to assess their level of bias. The aggregate results revealed that 70% of whites have an anti-black bias, as well as 50% of blacks respondents. (Project Implicit) This phenomenon of black anti-black bias is very complicated and was first identified in the landmark Clark Doll Study in 1939 (Clark Doll experiments) which revealed the destructive impact of racism on the developing self-esteem of children. This study became a critical factor in the desegregation of schools through the Brown vs Board of Topeka Education. The Clark Doll Study was duplicated through CNN’s research with a team of psychologists and they found similar results that implicit bias still exist and continues to reveal that there is pervasive anti-black bias (Inside the AC360 doll study).

These findings are important to board building and recruitment because they substantiate the following:

  • Implicit bias is prevalent in all aspects of our human interactions, 
  • Implicit bias impacts the ability of individuals to execute fair, just and equitable practices,
  • Boards must be intentional about participating in DEI training, engaging in discussions about implicit bias and implementing recruitment practices and processes that will de-bias their decision making,
  • Most boards need to invest time, varied approaches, and consider working with an expert to help them understand the impact of implicit bias on their governance process, and to create DEI strategies that will achieve a diverse and inclusive board.

#4: Create Equity Driven Actions

Identify specific DEI strategies that your organization and board will commit to and create a plan for how you will alleviate barriers and create access such as:

  • Ensure access and opportunities for diverse board members, employees, leadership advancement, vendors, and contractors.
  • Create partnerships with black lead organizations that can serve your communities, committing to building capacity within black and brown businesses.
  • When grantmaking, provide a roadmap for black lead nonprofits that will increase their capacity for receiving increased funding levels.
  • Support community leadership in black and brown communities, by creating opportunities for leadership development within communities and resist the practice of hiring from outside.
  • Make your commitment visual and obvious. Take any opportunity you can to make public statements that value DEI and importantly that include the specific details of your equity action plan. 

#5: Monitor and Hold Yourself Accountable 

Continually track and measure your efforts against your DEI action plan to maintain your focus on how you’re progressing toward these goals. It’s best to assign this work to a key committee or create a specific committee that will have the planning and oversight responsibility. This is not easy work, and it’s not accomplished through a one-session training or retreat.

It’s not unusual to become complacent, impatient and to lose your momentum over time. The practice of monitoring your performance and ensuring regular accountability reviews will ensure that you stay the course. Through prioritizing diversity, equity, and inclusion your board and nonprofit is committing to transformational work that will benefit your organization and community.

Robin Stacia

Robin Stacia

President/Principal Consultant at Sage Consulting Network, Inc.
Dr. Robin Hindsman Stacia is President/Principal Consultant of Sage Consulting Network, Inc., and a Senior Governance Consultant for BoardSource. With over two decades of experience as a consultant, trainer, coach, strategist, and leader; Robin remains focused on helping executives and board leaders perform at the highest levels. Robin’s strategies help leaders maximize their collective expertise and engage in governance practices that reflect best practices that respect their missions and the communities they serve. Dr. Stacia is well known for her customized approach to consulting, she is a sought-after consultant and presenter on leading practices for high performing boards, succession and strategic planning, and diversity, equity, and inclusion.