The lack of board diversity in both the nonprofit and for-profit sectors is hardly news. And a growing body of reports, articles, and data clearly shows that boards not only are not diverse, they're not even moving in that direction. Indeed, an annual survey of boards of directors of nonprofit organizations published by BoardSource found that 84 percent of board members are white, while 27 percent of boards surveyed reported not having a single member of color.
The survey conducted by my own firm, Koya Leadership Partners, affirms these trends. Of the hundred-plus boards we surveyed, 68 percent of all board members identified as white, while just 24 percent identified as a person of color. We wanted to understand why boards aren't changing, so we decided to ask.
Here's what we learned: 96 percent of boards believe that diversifying the board or executive committee is a key objective, but only 24 percent have taken steps to increase diversity. Clearly, there is a serious gap between intention and action.
Alarmingly, our survey found that most boards aren't even taking simple steps to increase inclusion and advance diversity such as developing a written diversity and inclusion statement, with only 11 percent of the boards we surveyed saying they had done so. Another key finding was related to board recruitment, with effective recruitment strategies emerging as a serious challenge for boards, which often struggle to fill board seats with candidates who contribute to the overall board diversity.
The good news? Closing the diversity gap is far from impossible. In fact, there are a number of steps any board can take, starting now, that will help move it toward real diversity and inclusion. Here are four:
1. Assess your own board through the lens of diversity. If your board has never ordered up a self-assessment, now is the time. Board assessments are an excellent first step to understanding the various talents, skills, perspectives, and experiences board members bring to table and are invaluable in helping board and senior leadership identify what is missing. You can find useful examples of a board matrix online, or you can make one of your own that lists each board member next to their demographic characteristics, experience, skills, and relevant attributes. Many boards find this to be a useful exercise that helps everyone better understand who and what is represented on the board, as well as who and what is not.
2. Recognize that becoming more diverse and inclusive requires culture change. Adding new board members who bring diverse backgrounds and perspectives is critical. But it's not enough. Many boards will also need to undergo a more holistic cultural change process that includes honest assessment, education, and a commitment to changing every aspect of board culture so that it truly embraces inclusivity.
3. Commit to action and create accountability. Many boards talk about diversity and take some steps in that direction, but then lose steam. If diversity is truly important to your board, make sure it is an articulated goal, and put people in charge of delivering results. Keep the goal front and center through regular progress reports, just as you would any other board activity. Some boards even create a diversity and inclusion committee and task it with formulating and achieving key objectives. As management guru Peter Drucker famously said: "You can't manage what you can't measure" — meaning you're unlikely to achieve your goals if you're not defining what success looks like and measuring progress toward it.
4. Expand your recruiting circle. Board recruiting is an area ripe for improvement. Most boards recruit through the social networks of their members, which means new board members are likely to be a lot like current your board members in terms of race, socioeconomic status, and other demographic characteristics. If boards are really serious about diversity, they need to look beyond the personal networks of their members. The good news? There are a number of ways to do this, including leveraging the knowledge and networks of your staff. Local and regional resources such as community foundations, Chambers of Commerce, and faith communities also present opportunities for expanded networks and contacts.
There's no doubt that a diverse board of directors can bring real and significant benefits to an organization and its stakeholders. But good intentions aren't enough. When it comes to diversity, boards must move from intention to measurable action. The suggestions above will help you get moving.
Molly Brennan is a founding partner at executive search firm Koya Leadership Partners, where her areas of focus include leadership, retention, and equity, diversity and inclusion initiatives. Widely quoted and published in leading publications, Brennan recently authored a white paper, "The Governance Gap: Examining Diversity and Equity on Nonprofit Boards of Directors."