In 2006 I worked for a small nonprofit that provided financial assistance to children of low-income families to attend private schools in Philadelphia. Most of the families were Black, Asian, or Latinx. At my first board meeting, I was struck by how many members were not only white but also suburban residents. There just seemed to be a disconnect.
And it seems change takes a long time.
The 2021 BoardSource report found that “38% of executives felt that their boards represented the communities they served.” The report also showed that only 10% of board members were African Americans.
Sulaiman Rahman has a long history in Philadelphia board service and leadership, including a mayoral appointment to the board of Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation. He also chaired the board of the African American Chamber of Commerce.
But it was through serving on predominantly white-led boards such as Mastery Charter Schools, the Kimmel Center and Community College of Philadelphia that Rahman saw firsthand the void in diversity.
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“There was this social club of wealthy white business and civic leaders solving some of the most important problems in our city yet without the cultural proximity to their communities,” Rahman said. And, said Rahman, it is not because the talent is not out there.
Rahman had tapped into a pool of Black professionals while an engineering student at the University of Pennsylvania. He began recommending these accomplished Black professionals for board positions but learned something else. African Americans lacked an appreciation for the value of board membership. Rahman said he realized there needed to be education around the potential exposure board service offered.
There was another hurdle he personally experienced.
“As a minority on the board, I realized you can get caught up in group think. You second guess how you should insert your story but in a way that doesn’t cross the line.” The result, Rahman said, is that often “you end up just being quiet.”
Rahman had a theory: create a program for professionals of color to have a clear understanding of board membership. The program would help them find their voice and confidently tell their stories, and it would provide personalized leadership development.
That program, DiverseForce on Board (DFOB) launched in 2017. DFOB is a six-month training combining board governance, and leadership development. The program has graduated 160 leaders of color from its certificate program and counts over 300 nonprofits as potential matching partners.
A key component of the program is pairing graduates with nonprofits.
DiverseForce partnered with U Penn’s ImpactEd, which provided instructional and evaluation support. The two organizations collaborated for months to create a customized curriculum incorporating DiverseForce’s core values of diversity, equity and inclusion.
Since its first cohort, Rahman said that over 30% of its alum have been promoted to executive board committees. DFOB has also helped to weave a web of connections that spread throughout the nonprofit community.
One example is Regina Hairston of the 2019 cohort. Following her DFOB training, Hairston was paired with a board chaired by David Cohen, senior advisor at Comcast, who appointed her as a committee chair. Later, in January of this year, Hairston was named President and CEO of the African American Chamber of Commerce.
“You never know exactly where all this goes when you sit people within proximity to power,” said Rahman; adding that there is a connection happening which is breaking down dividing lines.
Dr. Melinda Johnson is also a 2019 program graduate. She had been working at Drexel University when a colleague asked her if she had considered board service.
“She described so many benefits,” Johnson said. “It was the lending of your time and talent to areas that are important to you and connecting to other professionals,” Johnson recalled.
Johnson’s passion is serving youth in the South Jersey region. She was able to attend the training on a scholarship which covered the $5,000 tuition. (DFOB offers a limited number of merit-based scholarships funded by donors.)
Johnson was matched with the Center for Aquatic Sciences, a nonprofit in Camden that develops leadership skills in inner city youth, while exposing them to the environmental sciences.
“I had found my tribe,” said Johnson, and “we all knew it was a match the night we met.”
Months later, the Center partnered with Compass Pro Bono. Compass was looking for a new executive director, and Johnson was hired for the position. She continues to serve on the Center’s board and has even started her own faith-based nonprofit in south Jersey.
These stories are not just anecdotal.
Dr. Claire Robertson-Kraft has led ImpactEd’s evaluation of the program since 2017. Their findings show that one year after graduating, 80% of participants have secured board placement, some to multiple boards.
“I have evaluated a lot of programs over the years and DiverseForce offers far more than standard skills-building,” Kraft said. She considers the data meeting expectations, especially for a relatively new program; but their goal is to reach closer to 100% over time. However, Kraft said, “we want meaningful board matches and that takes time and cultivation.”
Kraft is encouraged at the quick appointments given that many boards retain long serving members with little turnover. Kraft said ImpactED is preparing longitudinal studies which will examine boards’ commitment to equity work.
Corporations participate by sending employees to attend the training. Comcast sponsored Lauren Blevins (2021 cohort). Blevins said it is a win for both the company and the employee.
“It’s an investment in the person and in the community,” she said, and that investment speaks to the value a corporation has on their employee. Blevins has already been matched with The Wardrobe, which she met at a DiverseForce event. Blevins was even able to shadow a few board meetings before making her decision.
When Darryl Bundrige became executive director of City Year Philadelphia, one of his immediate goals was to diversify its board. Bundrige, who is African American, started inviting CYP board chairs to DiverseForce events where they learned the importance of an inclusive board and creating a welcoming environment for diverse candidates.
City Year now has five DFOB graduates on its board including Hairston. Bundrige said each has brought beneficial perspectives from their various sectors. “They have helped us build our network and given us access we didn’t have before,” he said. Bundrige also said the alum have a lived experience with CYP communities.
ImpactEd’s evaluation further found that 100% of graduates said the material was high quality and fully prepared them for board service. The alum that spoke with Generocity also considered the networking and connections they made invaluable.
Blevins said DFOB offered an opportunity to meet people she may not ever have met; and that “[our cohort] is intentional about being a bridge for others. We’re family now,” she said.-30-
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