The Case for Diversifying the Board Room

By Paige McKay Kubik

“Nothing about us without us.” It’s an idea that spurred revolutionary Bostonians to toss tea overboard in 1773, shouting, “No taxation without representation!” And for decades, it’s been the rallying cry of disability advocates, who insist that people with disabilities have a voice in every policy and personal decision that affects them. It’s also a great guiding principle for board recruitment.

Google “board matrix,” and you’ll come up with plenty of spreadsheets designed to guide board recruitment. Most of these focus on a diversity of expertise and resources that board members can bring to your organization, as well as demographic diversity: race, age, gender, disability, sexual orientation. Diversity ensures you have the wide range of expertise that every nonprofit needs, but few can afford, and it broadens your reach with new audiences of potential supporters. Critically, diversity also assures you have a wide variety of life experiences, perspectives, and leadership styles to draw upon, leading to more robust dialogue, better-vetted decisions, and an enriched vision for your organization.

One characteristic left off of most board matrices has to do with the critical question of voice. Do you have all the right voices in the room to make the best decisions for your organization? Nonprofits are incredibly complex organizations with a long list of stakeholders, from the people and communities we serve, to public and private funders, to volunteers and employees, to collaborative partners and regulators. The board has no way to stay true to the mission if its members never engage in a meaningful way with every group served by it. 

The questions to ask first:

  • Does our board have the diversity of voices to represent all stakeholders? 
  • Do we know how our decisions will affect, and be received by, each group?

Many boards already reserve seats for client representatives, but giving that person a seat is not enough. I once heard someone say that diversity is not about inviting a new person to your party, but making sure they have a good time when they arrive. This means that, once the people we serve are represented on our board, the questions we must ask next are:

  • Are we providing all the support they need to understand the board’s work?
  • Are we building their relationships with more seasoned members, so they feel comfortable contributing to discussions?

One of our goals at the Frazer Center is to empower adults with developmental disabilities to be self-advocating, so their voices are heard in decisions that affect them at home, in our program, and in their communities. To that end, some of Frazer’s self-advocates have been involved in a program of the Georgia State University’s Center for Leadership in Disability, “My Voice. My Participation. My Board.” Each completed six days of face-to-face training on engaged and effective board participation, backed up by ongoing coaching and networking opportunities, to prepare them to serve on boards and advisory councils. 

As I supported one of Frazer Center’s participants through the training, I was energized by the gifts, passion, and perspective each trainee demonstrated, and struck by the value they could bring to a board. Some were already serving in leadership roles at organizations like People First of Georgia, and others have since been named to the advisory board for the Georgia Council for Developmental Disabilities, an independent state agency. Still others are prepared, and eager, to answer a call to serve.

If you are looking to broaden your perspective and reach, there is no better way than looking at your board, identifying which voices are still needed at the table, and inviting people who can fill those gaps to serve. Just be sure to support these new voices – especially those new to board service – and make sure the rest of the board is ready to listen.

Seeking candidates to diversify your boardroom? Check this list of leadership programs and professional organizations.

You can also find top candidates, ready to take on board service, using GCN’s exclusive Board Finder tool.

Paige McKay Kubik is CEO of the Frazer Center, an inclusive community where people of all ages and abilities gather, learn, and flourish together.

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