“Does our board represent our constituents?”

NFP board diversificationIt’s a question not asked often enough by organizational leadership, including the CEO and board chairman. Instead of making recommendations and assisting in the filling of vacant board seats, CEOs tend to leave the recruitment process to the full board (often via the nominating committee), and boards typically select new members very much like themselves. But to gain a true perspective on the needs of those served and how to best meet those needs, there’s no better way than populating your board with a more diverse membership.

At your next board meeting, look around for diversity in many forms — gender, race, age, skill, life experience, religion, education, income, occupation, etc. Then ask everyone at the table a few questions:
  • Does our board reflect the makeup of the clients we serve?
  • Does our board include members with divergent skills, experience and connections?
  • Do we gather sufficient points of view to consider viable programmatic/service options?
  • Do we have a grasp on how our programs/services should be shifting to meet the changing needs of our constituents?

If the answer to these questions is a general “No,” begin to build a more diverse board.

Start with revisiting your mission
The starting point is a simple one — review the profile of the demographic or cause the organization serves. In so doing, members can assess and clarify their collective understanding of the actual people or purpose they set out to help.

In response to the recent recession, many not-for-profit organizations are providing services that are new within just the past three years. As the mission is reviewed, the board should also examine the direction in which the organization is moving in order to plan for the coming years. The result of these examinations should be a clear-eyed assessment of how well-suited the composition of the board is to fully serve the organization’s mission.  

The next question for the board is this: What should the diversity, skill sets, life experiences and commitment of the board be to lead the organization going forward?

Identify the gaps in your board membership
Be practical in considering where your board has diversity, skills and experience gaps in its composition. This assessment is not meant as a check-the-box task in a checklist assessment. Rather, as you look ahead, take a wide view of perspectives and profiles of board member qualifications that will best serve the organization’s mission.

These are the kinds of discussions you might have:

If your organization serves people who are homeless, how many of your board members — or people they know well — have been homeless or grew up in poverty? How many work hands-on with individuals who are homeless or have those kinds of needs? It is invaluable to receive the reality check of a board member personally acquainted with joblessness, broken family relationships, addiction, poor health and hopelessness.

An organization that addresses common medical needs would be well-served to have physicians on its board.  However, a board composed of all physicians might deprive the organization of important business/financial skills or connections to key funders.

Ideal candidates are those who can offer real-life perspectives and diverse experiences.

Plan your recruitment approach
Identifying specific candidates could be accomplished in-house or with help from an outside consultant. The head of the nominating committee (or the board chair) or the consultant should then reach out to each candidate to gauge his or her interest. A follow-up meeting with the board chair and CEO to allow the candidate to learn more about the organization and its mission will help to ensure a good fit.

Onboarding of new board members is best done immediately and thoroughly, involving them with the organization early in their tenure so they can be productive as soon as possible. Share these kinds of topics with your new members: organizational history, current challenges, litigation matters, insurance coverage for directors and officers, dates of future board meetings, at least one year of board and committee minutes, past financial reports, and current and future operating budgets.

Be flexible about criteria
While wealthy donors are the lifeblood for many not-for-profit organizations, consider the fact that prospective members might not have the finances for a significant personal contribution. That expectation might need to be tailored because while financial capability is important, it is only one factor in the qualities and qualifications you should be seeking in a board member. As you consider diversity, think about how your board members can contribute. Some can give more of their time and may provide valuable experience; some will give money directly, while others may provide access to funders (“give vs. get”).

To achieve needed diversity, take steps to recruit board members reflective of your organization’s constituents, but also those with a capacity to give — financially and/or business acumen —and ensure that there is experience reflective of a variety of organizational roles.    

Prepare for a new kind of board meeting
A board with dissimilar members around the table will have discussions different from those of homogeneous boards. If you have chosen well, board composition will be diverse, and not all members will be inherently compatible. Some might be on opposing sides of important issues and will at times clash. Religious, political, philosophical and other points of view can be far apart.
Without tamping down a healthy and spirited exchange, leadership must be ever ready to remind all of their purpose: working together to serve the mission. Differing opinions are necessary to draw a complete picture of problems and needs. They’re yet one more reason that board diversity is pursued. The trick is to see discomfort as the positive element that it is. Passionate stands don’t make for easy discussions, but a robust dialogue makes for better decisions.

For a further discussion of benefits, see “Board composition: The necessary blend of skills” in Grant Thornton International Ltd’s 2015 report, Corporate governance: The tone from the top.

Contact Rick Wentzel or Mark Oster.