One of my biggest frustrations with nonprofits is that we tend to be reactive instead of proactive.
There are a lot of reasons that we are the way we are, most of which are related to our funding structures that don’t allow for anything but a constant hustle for money and positive outcomes, but that’s another topic for another day.
Today, our reactive tendencies are on my mind because the Black Lives Matter movement has turned the spotlight on the racial demographics of boards, advisory groups, and executive staff at nonprofits. It’s a spotlight we needed, and it’s a spotlight that we deserve.
What I’m worried about is the many nonprofits that are rushing to recruit people of color to their board and executive staff who are likely unprepared to provide truly inclusive spaces for those folks. Tokenism, or the practice of making a symbolic effort by recruiting a small number of people from underrepresented groups in order to give the appearance of racial equality, is already alive and well at nonprofits, and I am wary of how many will perpetuate even more harm by adding token BIPOC to their boards or leadership teams right now.
I used to work for an organization that held a spot on their board for a former client of their programs. The seat was typically held for a two-year term by a person in their early 20s, easily the youngest board member by 20 years. That young person often had conflicts with the board meeting times, which meant they often did not attend the meetings at all. When they did, they would sit quietly, taking it all in, very rarely speaking at all. They didn’t know their fellow board members by name, and their fellow board members did not often take the time to do much more than greet them or thank them for their time.
Despite the non-input received from the former client on the board, that organization humble bragged regularly about having that young person on the board. As if, by sheer presence alone, that person was given an equal seat at the table to their fellow board members. Their name being included on the board list was touted as a progressive and inclusive stance for that org. Despite that young person receiving nothing: no input, no mentorship, no opportunity, no connections, no voice. Just a name on a piece of paper to “prove” that the org was serious about diversity.
It happens everywhere, every day. A youth advisory board for a government agency, meant to provide input on the policies and programs that directly impact those youths. On paper, it’s a great opportunity for youth to have input; in practice, a token show of inclusivity that doesn’t actually change anything. The government agency reviews the advisory board’s input and puts it safely in a drawer somewhere where it will remain untouched while the government agency continues its work as usual.
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I met someone yesterday who works for a large educational institute who shared that it hired a Black CEO recently. They were quick to point out it was prior to the pandemic, which is code for prior to the BLM protests. He clearly wanted it known that his organization was thinking about diversity before it was a societal requirement. He was so proud of the fact that his all-white, all-male board that oversees a mostly white staff hired a Black CEO and then leaned on this Black CEO to do all the work of recruiting two Black board members. He also insinuated it would have been impossible to recruit those board members without a Black CEO.
So, for all of you out there who are realizing that you have a diversity problem on your staff or board, here are a couple of things to think about before you get started.
Diversity does not mean hiring someone who isn’t white. Diversity means that you have a safe and inclusive workplace that includes a variety of races, genders, sexualities, religions, ages, and disabilities. Having a mostly white staff with a few token Black or POC staff members does not ensure that those token staff members feel heard, seen, and included. It doesn’t guarantee that they are safe from discrimination, microaggressions, and bias. You have to do the work to build a space that doesn’t intimidate or value one voice above another. You have to create an environment where everyone has a seat at the table and is comfortable sharing their input.
Diversity is not a box you check and forget about. Building an advisory board of current and former clients to inform your work is a great idea. But you have to actually listen to the advice that the board is formed to provide to you. Hiring one BIPOC staff person to your leadership team doesn’t mean your work is finished. Achieving the goal percentage of racial diversity on your board isn’t an end point. You have to infuse diversity into your organizational culture and practices. You have to be intentional about providing a space where diverse voices are heard and their input is implemented.
Diversity does not mean leaning on your token staff to do all the work. You don’t need a Black person to help you recruit other Black people to your board. You need to first ensure you’re providing a safe and inclusive space for board members, and then you need to do the work of building relationships. You need to get out of your comfort zone and into the communities that your organization is serving. It won’t happen overnight, and it will take a lot of trust building, but if you’re sincere in your desire to build an inclusive space, you’ll be able to organically connect with BIPOC folks passionate about your mission who want to join your board.
If you rush to add BIPOC to your board or leadership staff right now, you’re not only doing a disservice to your organization, but you’re doing a disservice to the BIPOC you’re recruiting.
You’re setting them up for discrimination by an organization not yet ready to hear their voice with the same authority provided to white staff. You’re setting them up for regular microaggressions that make them dread coming into the office. You’re putting them in positions where their fellow board member’s unconscious bias will minimize their ability to participate fully as a board member. Eventually, they’ll leave your organization, and you’ll start the cycle over again to replace your token BIPOC on your board or staff.
If you’re not truly committed, truly willing to do the work to create an inclusive space, you’re just another hamster stuck in a wheel, perpetuating harm and parading it as diversity.-30-
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