When it Comes to Boards, “Who” Matters

Anne Wallestad

It should be obvious that “who” is doing a job or playing a leadership role informs how the job is done. Who we are as people — the experiences that we have, the skill sets and perspectives that we bring, the communities and contexts we call home — all of these things matter in terms of the way that we show up in leadership roles.

It should be obvious. But it often isn’t — at least when it comes to how nonprofit boards think about their own composition.

That’s why the findings from CEP’s recent study, Foundations Respond to Crisis: Lasting Change?, are so striking. In a study designed to explore how real and sustained foundation commitments to racial equity might be, CEP found important evidence about the relationship between “who” the board is and “what” it is doing in terms of its commitment to racial equity. The report states:

“Foundations that have boards with more racial diversity tended to adopt more practices to support grantees and the communities they serve.”

More specifically, leaders who indicated that their board was comprised of at least 25% people of color, were more likely to:

  • Change their grant application and/or selection processes to reach more nonprofits serving communities most affected by systemic inequities.
  • Direct more funds to organizations serving communities of color, lower-income communities, and undocumented immigrants.
  • Plan to increase funding directed to organizations serving Asian American, Black, Latino, and undocumented immigrants once the pandemic is contained.
  • Make new efforts to support Asian American, Latino, and Native American women, as well as lower-income women.
  • Have mechanisms for tracking demographics of the communities they support with their grant dollars.
  • Have approaches for determining whether an organization is led by individuals from the community or communities served.
  • Collect demographic information on the board members, executive leadership, senior leadership, and staff at grantee organizations.

Now, it is important to note that the authors of the report are careful not to claim that the board’s composition causes these actions; they are simply highlighting that the data documents a relationship between those boards that are more racially diverse and those boards that have adopted these practices. BoardSource’s own research revealed similar relationships. In our most recent Leading with Intent study, we found that boards that include people of color are more likely to have adopted diversity, equity, and inclusion practices than boards that do not include people of color[1].

This documented relationship between the “who” of the board and the “what” of the board and the organization’s work is unsurprising but significant. Unsurprising because, of course, “who” matters — we see it every day in our work, our relationships, and our communities. But significant because so many resist this idea. They insist that it shouldn’t matter who the board is, that it’s about what they do and how they lead. They argue that critiques of board composition that isn’t diverse, connected to community, and informed about the organization’s work are unfair, misguided, or politically motivated. That “it shouldn’t matter” who you are if you’re a “good board member.”

But — what this research demonstrates so clearly, is that these things can’t be separated. The “who (of board leadership)” is related to the “what (the board does)” and the “how (the board does it).” And — from a directionality or causation standpoint — it doesn’t really matter if it is the “who” that informs the “what and how” or if the “what and how” informs the “who” (and I’d be willing to bet it’s a both/and here).

What matters is that the relationship between board diversity and board action is real. Full stop. So let’s stop having conversations about board composition as though this is up for debate. Let’s be intellectually honest. Let’s name that boards that are choosing to be all white — or allowing themselves to remain so — are also choosing to reduce the likelihood that their work will advance equity and better serve communities of color. Our sector is structured in a way that allows boards to make that choice. But let’s be honest about the choice that’s being made.

[1] Notably, 19% of the nonprofit boards in BoardSource’s sample and 27% of the foundation boards in CEP’s sample reported that they are all white or zero percent people of color.

Anne Wallestad is president & CEO of BoardSource. Follow her on Twitter at @AnneWallestad.

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