The upheaval of the past year in terms of public health, politics, social equity and other areas of concern have made it clear that a new operating environment will emerge, shaped by a changing set of expectations.
Many organizations are recognizing that the composition of their governing board needs to be adjusted in order to better reflect the composition of the constituencies the organization serves or simply provide advice and guidance in areas which it had been lacking.
However, a poorly considered and executed effort to diversify the composition of the board can end up alienating potential members. A bad experience can also cause reflexive retrenchment of attitudes within the board.
Jim Taylor, BoardSource’s vice president of leadership initiatives and education, wrote about his experiences being recruited for board membership where he felt his only qualification was being a person of color because the board member couldn’t answer a simple question: “what value do I specifically bring to the organization?”
At the time that these conversations took place, I brought a wide range of skill sets and expertise – I was an expert in affordable housing policy and financing, I had significant leadership experience in both non-profit and for-profit contexts, I had been a grantmaker and understood fundraising, and I had a network of influence in my community.
Based on these experiences, I now ask the “how can I add value to this board and organization” question as an initial litmus test whenever I meet with a board member to discuss potentially joining a board; if the board member is unable to answer the question to my satisfaction, we may continue the dialogue but the real conversation, from my perspective, is effectively over. To be clear, I think this question of “how can I add value” is essential for every potential board candidate to ask, and to which every recruiting organization should have a thoughtful response.
As Taylor notes, what someone can bring to the organization is a question the board should be prepared to answer for every candidate, regardless of whether their identity meets a diversity goal or not. Identity is one of the many lenses boards should be applying, not the only one he says.
Taylor observes that when people of color achieve something, it is often assumed a bar had been lowered to allow them to accomplish it. “
This is a very complicated dynamic given that historically many board members were recruited simply because of their access to money and influence – the ability to give large sums or get others to give large sums–and perhaps not for other things they could bring to the table. No one would really consider questioning whether a bar had been lowered to allow their accomplishment.
In more recent years, board member candidacy appears to be less and less about a single aspect of one’s identity and more about effective organizational governance and mission execution.
Of course, it isn’t enough just to invite people to join the board. If you have sincerely acknowledged that you need the input of diverse voices to be a better organization, one of the first things Taylor says needs to be done is examine if there are any institutional practices that may make new board members feel unwelcome. How are board members being trained and mentored? Is board member input being solicited and considered, both in the areas of expertise and diversity of perspective for which they were recruited.
Taylor’s piece was on BoardSource’s blog and contains additional links to other resources and posts boards might use to shape their recruitment and general practices.