Thursday, June 13, 2024



Activating race equity problem-solving on nonprofit boards

Markita Morris-Louis. August 26, 2019 Category: FeaturedLongMethodPurpose


This is a guest post by Markita Morris-Louis, the chief strategy officer for Compass Working Capital.
Let me be clear. This is not another article about diversity.

The normative, political, common sense and business cases have been litigated and determined for the ‘why’.

This conversation is about the ‘how’.

And for me that means engaging in what the Aspen Institute has referred to as “race equity problem-solving” — operationalizing race consciousness to reverse inequitable policies and practices.

Equity and inclusion are part of our organizational lexicons, but how many of us have established frameworks for putting these notions into practice through an equitable allocation or — dare I say — a necessary redistribution of resources?

Here I offer some recommendations for incorporating an equity framework into the staffing of your nonprofit board through specific activation points. Trigger warning for those who prefer less honest and race-conscious conversations and activities.

Rarely have I seen a nonprofit board that either reflects the communities it serves — if those communities are of color — or that is coincidentally comprised of a majority of people of color (that could actually happen).

Many nonprofits create a diversity committee or diversity task force to identify and recruit professionals of color because we’ve decided the problem lies exclusively with the supply of people, i.e. there are not enough (qualified, influential, financially-secure) professionals of color available to permit nonprofits to meet the public appearance test for a diverse board.

We are fortunate as a community to have terrific resources that provide training for professionals interested in serving on nonprofit boards, including DiverseForce and even the Arts + Business Council’s Business on Board program. It seems we’re over-solving for the so-called pipeline issue by building cadres of highly qualified professionals of color poised to join these boards. But when DiverseForce trains every professional of color in the city (which they are on the path to doing), where will those professionals of color go?

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We have yet to address a less discussed supply challenge: available seats. So when we “solve” the people-side demand-supply equation, who’s going to attack the demand-supply equation on the board seat side?

Race equity demands that we create opportunity and literal space for those historically foreclosed from opportunity by structural racism. This may sound controversial but it shouldn’t be.

Nonprofit boards, individuals from over-represented groups being considered for boards, and funders all have a role to play.

Boards must be willing to meaningfully employ race-consciousness in shifting their composition, not just filling one or two seats. Some suggest using term limits as a way to force change in board personnel. Yes, term limits can be a mechanism but equity must be the motivation.

Nonprofits must define equity as its intention and have board members who are accepting of operationalizing space-creating, whether or not a term is coming to an end. Board members from over-represented racial groups (e.g. white cisgender men) should enthusiastically consent to step down from their seats — end of term, mid-term or otherwise — to make room for board members from under-represented racial groups.

Moreover, the end of terms themselves should be used as an opportunity to evaluate both effective board service and the racial composition of your board. One term served shouldn’t guarantee another, so governance or nominations committees must build processes that systematize reviews of both individual director performance and the board’s overall performance against explicit diversity/equity goals. And be willing to make the changes that serve and solve for equity.

Similarly, serious inquiry should be used as a tool of equity by our allies.

Before considering joining any nonprofit board, investigate the racial composition of the board and its relationship to the communities served. Decline to take a seat on a nonprofit board if your presence will preserve inequity in racial status quo. We have examples of this type of allyship in pop culture. The same should be demanded and expected in the nonprofit context.

Finally, funders and others with influence over nonprofits must be conscious of their beneficiaries’ diversity and equity needs when recommending their personnel for board service.

Many boards appreciate that funders, corporate funders in particular, signal their commitment to a nonprofit mission by offering senior leaders or folks with “juice” as board prospects. But often those senior leaders are white cisgender men and there’s no regard for the racial composition of the organization’s board or its diversity-equity goals.

Frequently corporate funders don’t have enough racial diversity in their own leadership ranks to direct people of color to nonprofit boards (or the few people of color are stretched thin over too many nonprofits). Nevertheless, funders must be mindful of using their influence to disrupt rather than perpetuate race inequity.

Bottom line, equity requires intention and action.

To truly be on the side of equity will require nonprofit boards to do some soul-searching, folks from over-represented groups to forego opportunities, and funders to be mindful of more equitable ways to exercise their power.

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