Diversity of opinion is the objective of a Boards of Directors. If we only wanted one opinion we would simply have one director and follow their advice. However, one opinion often misses important understanding about the people we serve or the communities we operate within. To ensure that diverse opinions are presented, heard and considered in decision making, agencies must have a strategy to encourage diversity in membership and healthy conflict at the board table.
Admittedly, my first exposure to conflict at a board table was not a positive one. Early in my career I recruited a very liberal social worker to join a very conservative board that was replete with lawyers, accountants and business people. I thought the social worker would provide an important perspective. However, she was completely disinterested in the dominant discussion at that table which completely focused on the agency financial picture. When she began to discuss the needs of the people we served or the social concerns of the day, the eye rolls of our existing board members were almost audible. The social worker left that board very quickly and I was slow to try this social experiment again.
The conflict on that board was not related to occupation but rather to inclination. I have met many conservative social workers who could have fit right in with that board. And I have met accountants with a liberal bent that would set them apart. My social worker wanted to discuss ideas, feelings and justice. The remainder of the board wanted to discuss viability, financials and accountability. I had done nothing to prepare one for the other.
Diversity comes in many forms. We may look at race or ethnicity. We may consider socio economic factors, geographic diversity, sexual orientation or first language. Or, we may consider differing points of view. Regardless of how we achieve it, differences are important. They allow us more insight into the people we serve and the issues we promote.
Recently, BoardSource published research indicating that in the US, board diversity related to race and colour has remained unchanged for more than 20 years. Almost two out of every three non-profit leaders identify diversity as important, yet few of their agencies identify diversity as an goal for their agencies.
However, as my experience highlighted, simply introducing difference onto a board is unlikely to be successful. In many cases, introducing someone who is unique onto a board may be harmful as they are bullied or ostracized. In some cases board members wait patiently for the token board member (token person with lived experience, token person of colour, or some other token introduction of diversity) to complete their story. They patronizingly listen and then continue their conversation as if that person had never spoken.
There are many good suggestions for creating diversity that can’t be overlooked. An agency needs to ensure that the cost of board membership, in terms of donation expectations and/or direct costs such as transportation or meals does not prevent participation. They must ensure that board membership is accessible. For example, can someone participate if they do not have access to a computer? Is the room wheelchair accessible? Are there overt signs, such as religious symbols that might inadvertently make a group fee unwelcome? A careful audit of potential exclusionary factors should be carried out.
However, no matter how accessible the venue and cost, true accessibility relates much more to the attitudes and behaviours of other directors. It depends on a board culture that encourages healthy conflict and provides opportunities for differing opinions to be heard and considered. It also depends on respecting differences in presentation style. Often boards are full of individuals who value getting to a decision which conflicts with the needs of people who tend to communicate in story form and be slower to “get to the point.” However, a strong commitment to hear and respect diverse opinions will ultimately ensure that our agencies are better able to make a positive impact.
For the Executive Director who wants to create a more inclusive, diverse board here are a few important tips:
- Ensure board buy in. If the board is not 100% committed, do not move forward with inviting diverse populations.
- Educate the board about different cultures and customs. Many of the people who traditionally joined boards have a very direct attitude. Business starts and stops at a specific time. Many people who have traditionally avoided roles on boards place much more value on discussion and social involvement. Ensure that board members understand that their meetings will change if they invite new members.
- Try to ensure that the board is balanced in terms of backgrounds and experiences. Don’t bring a single unique perspective into a board of people with similar backgrounds.
- Debrief candidly with the full board about.
- Create space on the board agenda for diverse topics of discussion and for relationship building.
I hope that in another 20 years the news about board diversity will be significantly different. However to make this happen, agencies must prioritize diversity and must accept that conflicting points of view all have value.
Streamline Non Profit Solutions offers management consulting services for non-profit organizations. Please visit www.streamlinenps.ca