How to Increase Diversity for a Nonprofit Board of Directors in 8 Steps

  • By: Adam Wire
  • February 18, 2022
How to Increase Diversity for a Nonprofit Board of Directors in 8 Steps
Reading Time: 6 minutes

Increasing diversity, equity, and inclusion in nonprofit organizations is a top priority for boards. Here’s how to increase nonprofit board diversity.

Increasing diversity and inclusion in nonprofit organizations is a top priority for boards everywhere, as they seek to make their leaders more representative of the communities they serve.

Many agree — there is much work to do. A recent OnBoard survey found that only about one in five board directors, administrators, and staff members across more than six countries rated their boards as very diverse. Various attributes can contribute to diversity, such as gender, age, race, ethnicity, education, professional experience, physical disabilities, sexual orientation, or socio-economic status.

While a majority of survey respondents identified board diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) as a key goal, many are unclear on exactly how to increase board diversity. Nearly 40% said their boards have discussed the issue but have yet to decide on a firm action plan. Less than half (48%) said they had specific actions planned.

Given the high level of importance of DEI to organizations worldwide, we will dive into the benefits of building broad representation, and tips on how to increase nonprofit board diversity at your organization.

Why Is it Important to Have a Diverse Board?

The board of directors plays a vital leadership function in shaping an organization’s future and keeping it on track and focused on its mission and goals. To best serve their communities and enhance the organization’s chances of success, nonprofit boards need individuals with diverse perspectives.

The more closely the makeup of a board mirrors the demographics of a nonprofit’s members and community, the better equipped the board will be to accurately represent that community and understand its needs. Boards that don’t reflect their communities tend to be out of step with the people they serve, and disconnected from the organization’s mission.

The goal of DEI is to tap a wealth of perspectives and ensure all individuals have a voice, regardless of gender, age, race, ethnicity, or other demographic characteristics. Nonprofits with diverse boards benefit from a “deep bench” of directors with a mix of backgrounds, experiences, and worldviews. Diverse boards are better equipped to:

  • Engage in more robust discussions on strategic objectives
  • Consider a wider range of ideas and opportunities
  • Make more informed decisions
  • Identify and manage risk
  • Respond to community needs
  • Evolve to meet changing needs
  • Plan for the future

A diverse board that is sensitive to cultural differences also is better able to attract and retain a diverse membership, workforce, and pipeline of future directors. DEI on nonprofit boards must go beyond simply checking boxes or filling chairs. Organizations should fully commit to strengthening board of directors diversity by fostering a welcoming environment that earnestly values a variety of viewpoints and opinions.

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Diversity Adds Value for Nonprofit Boards

Having a diverse board can help organizations add value in numerous ways. By taking a variety of viewpoints into consideration when making critical decisions, nonprofit boards are able to fully investigate issues and uncover risks and opportunities they may not have recognized otherwise. They are better able to identify, understand, and address the needs of underrepresented communities.

Fresh perspectives provide new opportunities that allow organizations to adapt to change and grow with more current and proactive approaches. It makes them more creative and more innovative. A recent report found that companies with more diverse boards were better able to navigate the abrupt changes brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, leading to better financial and operational performance. While the study focused on S&P 500 companies, the findings are applicable to the nonprofit sector.

8 Steps to Increase Board Diversity for Nonprofits

Leaders widely recognize diversity and inclusion in nonprofits as an ongoing challenge. Chief executives and board chairs gave themselves a “C” when asked to grade how effectively their organization provides a diverse and inclusive board committed to equity, according to a 2021 report.

The report found that racial and ethnic diversity was the most significant deficiency for nonprofit boards. More than 52% of board chairs indicated they were moderately or extremely dissatisfied with current levels of racial and ethnic diversity on their boards. A lack of socio-economic diversity was the second-highest problem area, cited by 27% of board chairs.

Unfortunately, there are no quick fixes or easy solutions to increasing diversity on nonprofit boards. Building a strong, diverse board takes time. Here are 8 tips for how to increase diversity on your nonprofit board include:

1. Thoroughly evaluate current recruitment processes

Examine how the board currently goes about advertising and filling board openings. This includes reviewing how and where you target recruitment efforts and the types of candidates those efforts generate.

Specifically look for practices that may have unintentional biases built in, such as leaning too heavily on current directors to identify potential candidates. These types of practices can contribute to a limited pool of applicants or nominations if organizations tend to overlook underrepresented communities, or somehow discourage individuals from those communities from pursuing a seat on the board.

2. Have the hard discussions

Compare the demographics of your membership and the communities your organization serves with the demographics of your board. If there are notable disparities, it’s essential to have an open and honest discussion about the potential root causes and effects of those disparities. Be open to constructive criticism and void being confrontational. Extend the conversation to stakeholders across the organization and within the community, and empower people to be candid about where the roadblocks may be and what can be done to eliminate or alleviate them.

3. Learn from others’ successes and failures

Extend your search for solutions outside your own organization. Talk to board leaders at other nonprofit organizations, within your community and beyond. Find out what has and has not worked for them in their efforts to enhance board diversity. Identify best practices for recruiting strategies within your industry, or applicable strategies from other industries. In talking with other organizations within your community, consider asking for their help as well as their advice if they have more direct relationships with underrepresented communities you would like to connect with.

4. Truly commit to DEI

Current or prospective board members from underrepresented communities want to know they are not there to serve as a token or to fill a quota. They need to feel comfortable serving on the board, and confident their voice and their opinions will be welcomed and heard.

Support for building nonprofit board diversity needs to come from the top. Nonprofit leaders have to do more than give lip service to DEI. They should work to foster an inclusive and welcoming culture organization-wide. Learn from those hard discussions and take actions to address biases or other potential problems within the organization.

5. Build buy-in and broad participation

Establishing a more inclusive environment requires participation and engagement from current board and staff members across the organization, as they will be interacting with candidates and new board members. Widely communicate the board’s goals and objectives relative to board diversity, and how they will benefit the organization in better serving its mission. Make sure everyone is on the same page and knows the importance of having a diverse nonprofit board.

6. Cast a wider net

Identify the potential limitations in your current recruitment processes and think outside of the box on new ways to attract a broader pool of potential candidates. Explore digital tools that reach a larger audience, such as social media, LinkedIn, etc. Consider partnering with other organizations within your community — such as local colleges or universities, community groups, or chambers of commerce — to identify and recruit potential candidates from among those who are most likely to understand the needs and perspectives of people in the community.

7. Set clear goals and monitor results

Having a clearly defined DEI strategy will enhance your organization’s chances for success. Develop a comprehensive plan that includes concrete goals, objectives, and tasks. Set time frames for meeting certain goals and define how the organization will measure progress along the way. This should include specific metrics, such as recruitment and retention rates, and more qualitative measures such as board surveys, annual board assessments, and exit interviews. Using a board skills matrix can help organizations map current directors’ skills and attributes, identify any gaps, and develop an effective succession plan.

Having a defined DEI strategy will demonstrate the organization’s commitment to nonprofit board diversity, make leadership more accountable, and provide a roadmap for those responsible for executing that strategy.

8. Be transparent

Develop a board diversity policy (see next section) that articulates your organization’s commitment to DEI, how you view DEI relative to your mission, and efforts to ensure board diversity in service of that mission. Be honest with candidates about your organization’s shortcomings in these areas and your plans for recruiting a diverse nonprofit board of directors.

Look at how your organization is perceived, and make sure a commitment to diversity is evident on the website and other external-facing materials. If you don’t already have one, incorporate an inclusion statement on your website and when listing open positions.

How to Create a Board Diversity Policy

As you evaluate DEI on your nonprofit board and gather input from current and past board directors, stakeholders, members, and community representatives, use that information to shape a board diversity policy. This should include how your organization defines DEI, why it is a priority, and the principles and processes you have implemented to strengthen board diversity. The board diversity policy also should include a statement of your organization’s commitment to ensuring a diverse, equitable, and inclusive environment.

The board diversity policy is not a document that can be drafted quickly. It requires significant introspection, thought, and input from across the organization. Gather and incorporate a wide range of recommendations and observations, and study numerous examples of board diversity policies from other organizations across various industries. There is no set length, format, or structure. A nonprofit board diversity policy should be shaped and molded to suit the unique needs of your organization, its mission, and the communities you serve.

The Bottom Line on Nonprofit Board Diversity

Building greater nonprofit board diversity is a complex undertaking. It takes many years of concerted work and an ongoing commitment from the organization’s executive and board leaders. Recognizing the need to address DEI is the first step. By acknowledging the organization’s deficiencies in providing equity and fostering diversity, leaders can begin to uncover and confront ingrained biases, knock down barriers, and open doors to broader, more inclusive nonprofit board representation.

Board Meeting

Ensure effective, efficient meetings with our comprehensive Board Meeting Agenda Template.

About The Author

Adam Wire
Adam Wire
Adam Wire is a Content Marketing Manager at OnBoard who joined the company in 2021. A Ball State University graduate, Adam worked in various content marketing roles at Angi, USA Football, and Adult & Child Health following a 12-year career in newspapers. His favorite part of the job is problem-solving and helping teammates achieve their goals. He lives in Indianapolis with his wife and two dogs. He’s an avid sports fan and foodie who also enjoys lawn and yard work and running.