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Board diversity and inclusion do not always mean equity: four questions that aid the challenge for nonprofit boards to incorporate racial equity

April 26, 2018

This piece was first published in Nonprofit Pro.

Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) is a much talked about topic across most sectors today, whether you work in the public, corporate, or nonprofit world. Diversity is a broad concept that can include ability, age, gender, race, regional or socioeconomic status, and sexual orientation. The nonprofit sector in particular has struggled with this issue, and this piece will take a look at diversity as it relates to race, in particular on nonprofit boards. “Diversity” was the buzz word for decades, until it became more widely recognized that recruiting or adding one Black, Brown, or Person of Color (anyone who doesn’t identify as white, also known as POC) to a board did not mean they were necessarily thoughtfully included, legitimately appreciated for their talents and intelligence, or that the group itself had actually changed. Diversity without equity is merely tokenism. Slowly I have seen and heard organizations speak more directly and name the goal of addressing racial equity—challenging white supremacist or white-normed cultural values* (read more about these here and at the bottom of this piece) and addressing the “isms” and implicit bias that surround us all, especially around race and ethnicity. These same conversations are also happening in relation to nonprofit boards, as they should be; if an organization is serious about racial equity, then that equity needs to extend to its board and board recruiting practices as well.

As a Black woman I have been invited to join nonprofit boards, especially those serving Black and Brown communities. Part of my background check on the organization involves doing research on social media and some probing around the organization’s diversity—I call this doing DEI due diligence. I check who is on the staff, within management, and specifically who is on the Board. In many instances I have found that I would be the only Black, Brown, or POC at the board table, or that I would be replacing the other Black or POC who was leaving. This would always lead to asking myself whether I would be tokenized, tasked with teaching white board colleagues about blackness, or the only one speaking for all of “my” people?

I have grown from these due diligence and board experiences, and by doing more work around increasing racial equity and having difficult conversations about race with colleagues (there is always more to learn and practice in this area). Today when I am recruited for, or work with boards struggling with cultural blindness, I count to ten, breathe deeply, and remind myself this is what it will take to encourage change. These are the four questions I ask, and suggest nonprofit boards ask of themselves, before beginning any recruitment for diversity:

  • What is the racial equity policy around your board recruitment? If there is not one, has diversity, equity, and inclusion at least been discussed as an area of growth and development among members of the board?
  • Are board members or the CEO/ED willing to reach out to their colleagues in the sector and their Black, Brown and POC peers for suggestions? When I hear “we do not know any Black, Brown, or POC who would be right to recruit to the board,” I ask if they have researched professional organizations of Black, Brown, and POC with whom they can begin to network. If they have not, I make some suggestions of organizations to start with.
  • What are you doing at the board level to change the culture such that Black, Brown or POC would feel welcomed, included and want to remain on your board?
  • Further to this, are people on the board ready to listen to and welcome different points of view, and move away from “this is how we have always done this”?

This line of questioning is not easy—it requires vulnerability, courage and boldness to be direct and confident in talking about race, diversity, equity, and inclusion—but it is necessary for all of us. For racial equity to begin to take root in our organizations we all need to be courageous, step out of our comfort zones, make mistakes, and occasionally cause some emotional or spiritual discomfort—people may feel hurt, defensive, or angry about addressing racial, ethnic, and cultural subjects in the work or volunteer space. For some organizations this will require a huge paradigm shift in thinking and questioning white cultural norms and power dynamics that may feel comfortable and familiar. Racial equity growth is not comfortable. As we know the only thing certain about our organizations is that they will change internally, or the environment around them will change and they will need to adapt to be sustainable. The same is true if we are serious about undoing racism in the nonprofit sector and on nonprofit boards.

There is no end point of success or complete racial or ethnic equity. But that shouldn’t stop us from acting strategically to expose and name white supremacist norms that have been formally referred to as the “right way” or “how we have always done things.” We can encourage and train nonprofit leaders to target their actions, conversations, decisions, and processes such that the institutions they lead, and their boards, move closer toward racial and ethnic equity.

By CRE Consultant, Andrea J. Rogers

*White cultural norms are characteristics of white supremacy culture which show up in our organizations. Culture is powerful precisely because it is so present and at the same time so very difficult to name or identify. The characteristics are damaging because they are used as norms and standards without being pro-actively named or chosen by the group. They are damaging because they promote white supremacy thinking. Organizations that are people of color led or a majority people of color can also demonstrate many damaging characteristics of white supremacy culture. To read more about them, please click here.