Board Cafe: The Diversity Issue Part 2

Board Cafe

The Diversity Issue Part 2

By Jan Masaoka

Wow! We got so much mail responding to our last issue discussing diversity on nonprofit boards that we know many of you are on boards wrestling with this concern. Let's resolve this new year to strive for authentic, mission-based policies on diversity -- I hope the suggestions in this issue are a helpful start.

In the last issue of the Board Café, we discussed the variety of situations leading to discussions of diversity on nonprofits boards of directors. We propose the following principles as a starting point for boards:

1. A "mission reason": To help ensure that the perspectives of people utilizing services are reflected in planning and operations, organizations should have on their boards members of the communities being served, including clients, customers, and volunteers. (It's hard to imagine an effective board working with people with disabilities with no members with disabilities, a Chinese community center with no board members who are Chinese, or a theatre board with no members who attend the theatre.) Examples: "We will strive to have two or more members of our board be parents whose children are residents in our treatment program." "As one way we ensure our organization is responsive to the diverse community we serve, we are committed to a board that includes individuals from different racial and ethnic communities, different genders, ages, sexual orientations, and physical disabilities."
2. A "business reason": An organization's board should include individuals who bring contacts, sensibility, and knowledge related to the communities served. Examples: "To help us reach and reach meaningfully the Latino population we want to serve, we are committed to a board that is 40% or more from the Latino/Hispanic community." "Because our organization seeks to serve a racially diverse spectrum of low income families, we strive for board composition that is racially and ethnically diverse."
3. A "responsible corporation reason": Even beyond an organization's client population, today's diverse communities need diverse organizations as community building blocks. As a member of the employer community, organizations have a responsibility to community-building. Example: "In line with our commitment that our staff and board reflect the larger community we serve, we will strive to have our staff and board have racial and ethnic composition comparable to the civilian labor force in our area."

4. Ethnic-specific and gender-specific organizations (and others) should clarify and articulate their policies (whether/how to diversify) as part of their missions or their strategies for working with their communities. Examples: "Because our organization is built on the idea of self-help for the immigrant Central American community, our board's composition as 100% Central American immigrants is an important aspect of how we do our work." "We expect that the composition of the board of our Arab American historical society will be predominantly Arab American, but we have no restrictions on race or national origin, and we recognize that others can play valuable roles in advancing our organization's mission." "As a group advocating for the advancement of women in science, we see our board's composition of 100% women as a component of our mission."

Discussions about diversity are difficult to hold. 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.

There is no "right" answer on diversity that is appropriate for all organizations. The discussion about diversity is itself an important process through which a board can consider in what ways diversity may be important in achieving its mission.

Original publication date: 1/12/1998

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