When BoardSource’s most recent report on the state of America’s nonprofits came out with the news that board diversity hasn’t increased in the past 20 years, Sharmain Matlock-Turner wasn’t exactly surprised.
The Urban Affairs Coalition CEO spends a lot of her time thinking about the issue of board and leadership diversity within Philadelphia nonprofits and foundations, partially because she’s an African American woman who’s served on an estimated 30 boards in her lifetime.
She also co-chairs the Philadelphia African American Leadership Forum (PAALF), which last year co-produced a study examining the differences between African American–led nonprofits and white-led nonprofits, and she’s been a featured face at the recently launched board governance program for leaders of color organized by Penn’s Fels Institute of Government and DiverseForce.
The case for diverse boards has been well-argued: They perform better, and especially for nonprofits that serve disadvantaged communities, they’re more likely to meet their missions. (Similar point: Don’t accept money from organizations or individuals whose values don’t align with your mission.) And diversity doesn’t just mean race: It also includes socioeconomic status, gender, professional experience and more.
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Even so — and as the BoardSource report found — board diversity isn’t improving. Indeed, 27 percent of boards have no people of color.
There’s no report available with data on the diversity of local boards, but the PAALF report did find that organizations with African-American leaders (executive directors, presidents, etc.) tend to have primarily African-American boards — and it’s the same in reverse for white-led organizations.
As Matlock-Turner sees it, there are few reasons for this.
“At least from my perspective and looking at some of the research, a part of this [disparity] is certainly historic,” she said — meaning, the nonprofit sector is still very much grappling with the country’s legacy of racism, discrimination and segregation.
But also, “a lot of it really is your network,” she said, and “the issue of social networks being very homogenous.” Boards are often formed by existing connections and leaders have been shown to be more likely to bring on people who look and think like them.
Doylestown’s Seybert Foundation, which gives general operating grants to nonprofits working with Philly children and youth, has been tackling this issue on its own board for the past six years.
Diana Doherty, the foundation’s manager and sole staffer, said the board has been “very intentional” in taking steps to make the board more representative of those it serves through its grantmaking. The first step was to have transparent conversations about why the board valued diversity and what a better makeup of experiences and backgrounds could look like.
After that, the organizations enforced strict term limits, which enabled longtime board members to roll off and make room for new members. “No matter what your board’s diversity is, it’s important to have rotation,” Doherty said. “And we were not doing that until 2011.”
Seybert also committed to preserving gender equity on the board as much as possible, and to recruiting people closer in age and experience to those benefitting from its grants. Its first new members were a 30-something, non-native-English-speaking Latino, and a 20-something South Asian American female.
To be clear, these hires were “not tokenism,” Doherty stressed. “These are people whose experiences and dedication were proven and relevant to the discussion of grants, but their personal demographic story was extremely important in that mix, and was not a third-rail subject at all in our board development. It was front and center.”
Now the 10-person board is made up of six men and four women, including six people of color, four white people, one teenager, a former foster youth, parents of former public-school students and former participants of Seybert-funded programs.
Still, “there’s a lot more room to go for us,” Doherty said. “There’s still a lot of grantee populations we hear from who we don’t have the institutional knowledge to recognize. It’s not over and it’s going to have to keep evolving.”
Community College of Philadelphia Foundation (CCPF) Executive Director Gregory Murphy said his 20-member board represents “a little bit of everything” in terms of gender, race and industry diversity.
But it’s the diversity of industries that Murphy feels is most valuable to the success of CCPF’s board, which is tasked with raising money for the school. That diversity is both purposeful and “organic” — with the school’s growing focus on workforce development, it was important to find individuals who work in the fields represented by its programs. In turn, people from those industries are attracted to the board because the school is instructing in their fields.
“Those things attract a different kind of person who is looking to support the college,” Murphy said. “The foundation has really made sure as we take on new members that they’re really focused on what we’re doing.”
For instance, the board recently named Dr. Ellyn Jo Waller, the first lady of megachurch Enon Tabernacle, as its president. The church donated $100,000 to CCPF’s 50th Anniversary Scholars program this spring because CCPF’s goals in positive community-building through education matched those of the church.
“I feel like with the present foundation, we have access to so much of the city, and it’s access with credibility” because the board members are already working in those diverse spaces, Murphy said.
With a mission of supporting women, trans and gender-nonconforming artists in Philadelphia, Leeway Foundation’s board is committed to having a board representative of its constituents — and that means the board is entirely made up of women, trans and gender-nonconforming folks.
It’s homogenous in a way, but it also features a mix of former grantees, people who are involved with Leeway’s community partners and people from other constituencies the organization supports.
“It’s really the work of the chair of the board to develop an ongoing set of criteria that’s used in any given year, asking what are the needs, what are the communities we feel we need to have represented,” said Executive Director Denise Brown.
That’s partially because one of the board’s main jobs at the foundation is outreach to typically underserved artist populations who may have never applied for a grant before, so the board needs to think creatively about how to open the door to those people. And it’s easier to connect to underserved communities if you’ve already started to develop “authentic relationships with the community,” she said.
For other organizations looking to make their boards more representative of their constituents, Brown advised they ask themselves, “What is it you’re hoping to achieve, and how can [your board] help you achieve that goal?”
Similarly, “you need to define in the context of your organization what diversity means,” she said. “Who is it that we’re serving, and how do you give those voices power in your organizations? How do you build those bridges and relationships?”
For boards prioritizing diversity, Matlock-Turner offered a few tips.
- Have the uncomfortable conversation. You can’t get anywhere if you don’t start, right? Make sure everyone is engaged and understands why the topic matters.
- Bring in experts. The Sharmain Matlack-Turners, the Sulaiman Rahmans, the groups and people who have examined these issues and are willing to share their experiences.
- Form a governance committee within the board. This group will dedicate more time to analyzing the organization’s diversity-related strengths, weaknesses and opportunities.
- Track your progress. “If you don’t count it, it’s hard to understand if you’re having success,” she said.
Seybert’s Doherty, for one, is hopeful about the future of Philly boards.
“I’m getting more and more calls from colleagues who are asking about our experience” in diversifying the Seybert board, she said. “I think the intentionality is definitely increasing, even if the actual change isn’t happening yet. The first step is deciding it’s important.”
This story was edited by Technical.ly Editor-in-Chief Zack Seward.