Too Many Foundation Boards Are Failing at Diversity

Phil Buchanan

The BoardSource report I blogged about last week includes shocking data about a lack of racial diversity in the foundation boardroom. Forty percent of foundation boards for which BoardSource gathered data reported they are all white. Excluding family foundations, 35 percent of the boards have no members who are people of color.

Even allowing for the fact that some foundations work in geographies that are overwhelmingly white, I found these statistics surprising (call me naïve). And even allowing for the fact that BoardSource’s data is, by its admission, not representative, it’s still a whole lot of really white foundation boards.

Overall, of the board members at the 111 foundations that responded to the survey, only 15 percent were people of color.

Foundation boards must do better. It’s just that simple. In an increasingly racially diverse country at a time of resurgent, open racism — and in light of this country’s history of racial oppression — it’s inexcusable not to have greater diversity in the boardroom. 

Diverse groups make better decisions, as Scott Page describes in his new book, The Diversity Bonus. People who bring a range of backgrounds — including race but also extending to many other elements including disability, socio-economic history, and life experience — are better positioned to help a foundation choose goals and chart the strategies to achieve them.

So it’s about effectiveness. If you doubt that, see, for example, this short summary of a number of research studies linking diversity to performance.

In fact, I thought this was more or less settled. So what are these all- or virtually all-white foundation boards waiting for? Foundations big and small — from the Ford Foundation to the Hyams Foundation in Boston — have shown what a really diverse board can look like. It’s not so hard.

How to start? Step one is to ensure there are term limits for current board members — and that they are enforced.  Boards can’t get more diverse without new members, and yet a 2015 benchmarking study CEP conducted of governance practices showed that, while the overwhelming majority of foundation boards have terms for their members, nearly half impose no limit on the number of terms a board member may serve. While there may be legitimate cases involving a donor or a donor’s direct descendants in which terms or term limits may not make sense to apply, these cases should be much more the exception than the rule and don’t in themselves explain the lack of racial diversity overall.

(A side note about CEP’s 2015 governance benchmarking efforts: we attempted, but were unable, to collect data on the racial diversity of foundation boards due to the high number of non-responses to those questions. We assumed this must have felt like a touchy subject to boards, and given the BoardSource data I could see why. So I’m especially glad BoardSource was able to collect this data.)

It may be difficult for boards to impose limits on themselves in light of the various perks of foundation board membership — including the meaningfulness of the work, prestige, and, in many cases, compensation and access to discretionary grantmaking budgets to support organizations of personal interest. But it’s the right thing to do. The hardest part can be opening up the conversation.

But it needs to happen.

Ensuring regular turnover of current board members and then prioritizing diversity in the recruitment of new ones is the only path forward for foundation boards if they are to make the kind of dramatic progress on diversity that is so desperately needed.

Phil Buchanan is president of CEP. Follow him on Twitter at @philxbuchanan.

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