Helping to Ensure Diversity and Inclusion on Nonprofit Boards
By Judith Kamber
Boards that have made a commitment to become more diverse and inclusive should first take the time to assess their board culture and their readiness to create a different vision and space.
A first step might be to ask the following:
Are the issues of diversity and inclusion problems to be solved or opportunities to create boards representing our communities, our varied experiences, and our stories?
Do we want to problem-solve our way into inclusion or engage the prospect by anticipating what we might create together?
If the goal of inclusion is considered an opportunity, one question must be Who is not in the room?”
We cannot create a collective future without acknowledging that we are part of a system within the social fabric of our communities. This recognition provides a perspective for board members to see why diversity matters.
If we intend to become diverse, then we will no doubt spend time considering ethnic, racial or gender groups who are not represented on our boards and this is a very important consideration. But, if we want to be inclusive we might ask how much time do we spend considering how our boards manage our time together in such a way that we truly engage, value, and seek leadership from our board members.
What It Means to Be an Inclusive Board
If we had a more diverse board would we automatically be a more inclusive board? Boards that seek diversity and take all the right steps for all the right reasonsan on-boarding process, a thoughtful search for skilled new members, and an assignment of mentorsmay be surprised that new members disappear after several meetings.
To be inclusive board, boards can take a preliminary step that is more elusive than taking a vote, adopting a policy, or a setting a strategic goal, but which is crucially important. And that is to understand the importance of belonging and relationships. Think about how often boards recruit a new member not only to supply a particular skill set, but also because a member of the board knows that person, thinks they will be a good fit, and recommends them.
Serving on a board is a considerable commitment of time and a big responsibility. Recruiting new members is an investment for the board and the organization. Most boards meet one to two hours once or twice a month. Usually these meetings are face to face. Why dont we meet in an electronic meeting space and avoid the fuss of traffic and snacks? We dont, because we know, on some level, that being together in a communal space matters.
Perhaps, as Meg Wheatley suggests in her book Turning to One Another, our natural state is to be together. Though we draw apart from each other between meetings, we dont lose the need to be in relationship.
What makes a space truly communal is worth considering. Each gathering has the potential to create a conversation that is an opportunity for meaningful work together. What matters are the connections, discoveries, and the way we handle dissent or disagreements.
Boards should also ask themselves: who is or is not part of the conversation? Related to that: How we listen to people. Do we marginalize people? What is the structure and culture we have built? Who is or is not participating? Are we creating the transformation we hope for?
How we invite people and welcome them matters greatly. Everyone likely can recall the experience of coming into a new group (as an adult or as a child), feeling ignored, unwelcomed, or unneeded, perhaps even feeling a profound sense of not belonging. This may be unintentional on the part of the group, but if this is the case in homogeneous groups, imagine how this experience would make you would feel as an underrepresented minority on a board.
Boards feel pressure to accomplish a great deal in a short period. They may feel that it is not a good use of time to build a social fabric, strengthen relationships, and understand the gifts that each person brings to the table. But leadership is about creating experiences and conditions for others. Each meeting of a board is an opportunity for engagement, belonging, and inclusion.
In a truly communal environment, we can ask what is possible and imagine what we can create together. "Together" will mean that voices not previously heard when introduced can enrich and challenge us as we discover our collective wisdom.
Judith Kamber, founder of Co-Creating Communities of Practice, consults on leadership, community, empowerment, and inclusion and is board chair of Jericho Road Lawrence and board vice president of Theatre in The Open at Maudslay State Park. Email to Judith.Kamber1@gmail.com.s
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