Recognizing Your Board Members' Blind Spots

Board Smarts Associations Now November/December 2017 Issue By: Tim Ebner

Board leadership may be slow to see progress on diversity and inclusion efforts, but that doesn’t mean board members should be operating in the blind.

Board diversity is a topic that receives a lot of lip service, but when it comes to putting words into action, nonprofits still have a long way to go. That’s according to some key data from BoardSource’s Leading with Intent report.

The survey of more than 1,700 nonprofit leaders identified that 90 percent of board chairs and 84 percent of board members were white. Meanwhile, 27 percent of boards were entirely white, and a majority of boards were either male or over age 50.

That doesn’t come as a surprise to Vicki Deal-Williams, FASAE, CAE, chief staff officer for multicultural affairs at the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.

“Board leadership is probably one of the last places where we are going to see changes related to diversity and inclusion,” she says. “Some of that is a function of this concept of what is known as privilege and who has been given the opportunities to lead.”

While most executives surveyed agreed that a diverse board was important or very important for planning effectively for the future, Deal-Williams says board members must be proactive in ensuring a more diverse leadership pipeline.

“Those who are in situations and positions to lead have to be extremely cognizant about who’s not at the table and why,” she says. “As the steward of the association, board members have a responsibility to know [their] stakeholders, know what’s relevant to them, as well as their needs and desires.”

Member data can help dispel board members’ assumptions. In ASHA’s case, data helped its board rethink the appointment process for committee leaders.

“We were hearing complaints about young people not being considered, and people from diverse and ethnic backgrounds feeling overlooked,” Deal-Williams says.

We have a very diverse slate, but that doesn’t mean those are the individuals that get elected.— Vicki Deal-Williams, FASAE, CAE

To address this, she conducted an informal survey of incoming and outgoing board members about the importance of D+I and how they felt about recruiting and identifying leaders from diverse backgrounds.

“I showed them what they thought they were doing versus the same-old results they were getting,” Deal-Williams says.

Tackling board diversity also depends on governance structure. For associations with board appointments, it’s possible to work with the executive committee to address it. But, for groups like ASHA where positions are member-elected, it can be more complex.

“We have a very diverse slate, but that doesn’t mean those are the individuals that get elected,” Deal-Williams says. “What we’ve done instead is to focus on the cultural competency of our board. They come up with a set of guiding principles that establish the policies and practices, and we actively work with them to engage our staff and members.”

[This article was originally published in the Associations Now print edition, titled "What’s Missing?"] 

Tim Ebner

Tim Ebner is former senior editor of Associations Now in Washington, DC.