Board Cafe: Proposed Diversity Principles

Board Cafe

Proposed Diversity Principles

By Jan Masaoka

As an Asian American, I am acutely aware of how distant the mostly-white mainstream community is from communities of color. As consultants to nonprofits, we at CompassPoint rarely see nonprofit, public benefit corporations that don't have some kind of tension over diversity among board and staff members. Diversity also means very different things in organizations trying to serve the general community, and those rooted in, for example, the Chinese or Latino community. This month's Main Course article proposes some principles to help your board think through these issues. -Jan Masaoka

Discussions about diversity arise in a variety of situations. Many boards are reluctant to bring up sensitive topics, and race, sexual orientation, and other matters are often difficult to discuss constructively. Mostly white boards committed to diversity still have difficulty recruiting and integrating people of color onto the board. We propose the following principles as a starting point for boards:

  1.  A "mission reason": It's hard to imagine an effective board serving people with disabilities with no members with disabilities, a Vietnamese community center with no board members who are Vietnamese, or a theatre board with no members who are theatre-goers. 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. Examples: "We will strive to have two or more members of our board be parents whose children are residents in our treatment program." "One way we ensure our organization is responsive to the diverse community we serve is that we are committed to a board that includes individuals from different racial and ethnic communities, different genders, ages, sexual orientations, and physical disabilities." "As an organization fighting for rights for the elderly, we want to have 50% or more of our board members be 60 years old or older."
  2. A "business reason": An organization's board should include individuals who bring contacts, sensibility, and knowledge related to the organization's business objectives. Examples: "To help us attract Latino volunteer docents and Latino visitors, our museum wants to have two or more Latino board members connected with the community." "To reach the donors and leaders in communities of color, we want to have leaders of those communities on our board."
  3. A "responsible corporation reason": Even beyond an organization's client population, today's diverse communities need diverse organizations as community building blocks. As an employer, nonprofits have a responsibility to community-building (although a small organization doesn't have the same scope of responsibility as a large one). 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." "As a shelter for battered women, we have seen our board's composition of 100% women as a component of our mission to empower women. Now, as we move forward, to seek a broader base of support, connections, and advocacy, we have decided to open our board to men." "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 one 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: 4/15/2002

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