“I don’t know anyone who . . . .”
Recently, a colleague presented a workshop on nonprofit financial management to a group of board members of and volunteers for very small grassroots social service organizations. In the course of one of their discussions a participant observed, “I don’t know anyone who is not working two jobs.” My colleague’s first reaction was that this was highly atypical. The nonprofit board members many of us are used to represent money and influence or carry the title of “community volunteer”–people who have enough money and time to devote to service. In very small agencies like those participating in the workshop, the personal circumstances of board, staff (if there is any), and volunteers are not too far removed from those of their clients. Due to their life situations they do not have access to the people who are “typical” board members. The fact that they don’t individually is the principal reason they don’t collectively.
Nonprofit boards are self-perpetuating. They nominate their successors and so, human nature being what it is, boards are predisposed to homogeneity. The participant’s comment reminded my colleague (and me) of this inherent issue with respect to diversifying boards. We are all in silos of various kinds: arts, social service, political, racial/ethnic, religious, sexual identity, socioeconomic, etc., etc. For most people, it’s likely that they know few or any from outside their own inadvertent silos. We know people we know and don’t know the others. It takes extraordinary attention and effort to counteract this tendency, but if equity is important (yes it is), counteracting this has to stop being an “issue” and must become an obsession in all our work. (Thanks to Barry Hessenius for this construct.)
But merely finding “different” people to check off boxes won’t yield the desired results. Single individuals from any silo may or may not bring a diverse perspective. Plus, the toll of being a token can stymie anyone in working effectively. My work in advocating for relationship building with communities provides a solution. Build relationships with the communities you want to see represented on your board and staff and in your audiences. Put in the work to develop trust where none exists and in the process learn about those communities and their individuals. Pursue those who catch the spark of your mission and understand the value you can bring to their circle of friends.
This is not the work of the typical nominating committee that puts together a slate of names the month before the board election. (Although that model is almost uselessly ineffective even without taking issues of diversity into account.) It is the work of the whole board to be building those relationships and, out of that, identifying individuals who can add value to the function of the board.