Why Most Nonprofit Boards Resemble Whiteboards And How To Fix That
Although this movement has mostly directed attention to work-related abuses involving white women since it hit critical mass in 2017, it also speaks to me as a black man because of the racial discrimination I personally experienced many years ago as a nonprofit CEO.
Today, I blame that predicament on the lack of leadership diversity on my nonprofit’s board, a widespread problem I now research as an academic scholar. Imbalances of power create opportunities for the people who have historically called the shots to abuse their authority – whether that means paying people of color less than whites for the same work or committing the kinds of outrages that the #MeToo movement and its offshoots are now bringing to light.
About as bad as corporate boards
Here’s the big picture: At a time when only 61.3 percent of Americans are white, about 84 percent of nonprofit board members are in that demographic group, along with 90 percent of nonprofit board chairs. When BoardSource, which strives to improve nonprofit management, released this data in 2016, it predicted little progress:
“Despite reporting high levels of dissatisfaction with current board demographics — particularly racial and ethnic diversity — boards are not prioritizing demographics in their recruitment practices.”
The leadership ranks of nonprofits are, it turns out, a bit more racially and ethnically diverse than their corporate counterparts. Yet I believe nonprofits typically have more of an imperative than private companies to get this right because of their missions.
Do-good organizations can do better
This matters because boards of directors supervise the nation’s nearly 1.6 million nonprofits, providing financial oversight and strategic guidance. In addition, they help with fundraising and hire and manage the group’s top staffer. Most board members are volunteers.
Nonprofits, such as medical research institutions, houses of worship and shelters for sexual abuse victims, usually fill gaps between what the government and private sector do. A large share of them serve communities with great needs, a population that is disproportionately made up of people of color.
Strangely, nonprofit decision-makers seem to either not understand or believe that relying on overly white leadership is at odds with their missions.
My own experience illustrates the travails that leaders of color may experience within nonprofits.
After spending nine years working for Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, the nation’s largest youth mentoring organization, I was thrilled to move from its national headquarters in Philadelphia for a job as its temporary CEO of its Austin, Texas, affiliate.
I was even more excited when the board wanted to hire me permanently six months later. But my enthusiasm soon fizzled upon discovering that the same board that unanimously wanted me to lead the organization also collectively decided to pay me after this promotion thousands of dollars less than my predecessor – a white woman with less experience than me who had approximately the same academic credentials.
Attempting to negotiate a more equitable salary with a board that was all white aside from one black man made me more discouraged. I was simply told the matter was not up for discussion. After all, the board’s president-elect stated, I “didn’t have to say yes” and it was the first time I would be serving in this capacity – as it was for the CEO I was replacing.
Just imagine dedicating nine years of your life to an organization with the goal of becoming its CEO, having that dream come true and then realizing your hard work had culminated in an offer to be paid far less than the person you were to replace.
Though I eventually accepted the board’s offer based on what I believed to be right in terms of my career path, in my heart I knew I was discriminated against in terms of compensation.
Most do not make diversity a high priority when they recruit new leaders, for example. As James Westphal of the University of Michigan and Edward Zajac of Northwestern University found in 1995, most board members are identified and recruited through informal practices that are rarely rigorous or systematic.
This convention hasn’t changed. Unsurprisingly, it yields recruits who resemble older board members.
As a result, new and former nonprofit board members are nearly identical in terms of their ethnic and racial backgrounds, even for groups claiming to value diversity. Maybe they do. But the sector must prove that.
I believe that nonprofit leaders can take some basic steps to draw more people of color into their upper ranks.
Since the leadership in most nonprofits is drawn from the board and upper management, a simple first step is to acknowledge the job dissatisfaction of employees of color. Ample research, including my own, indicates that they are generally less satisfied than whites.
Close your eyes and think about it.
Why would this set of employees, regardless of their passion for mission-based work, seek out and take on additional responsibilities in their organization when they are less satisfied with their jobs than their white co-workers? Unsatisfied employees, whether white or people of color, are more likely to move on.
In addition, board members and top staffers can make and communicate their clear plans to achieve this goal. Consistently communicating why it would advance the group’s mission – and is worth the trouble – is key. So is letting employees of color know their input is highly valued.
Airing feedback from employees of color at board meetings helps groups that are taking this task seriously, as does requiring nonprofit executives to identify, hire and mentor non-whites for leadership roles.
With many nonprofits undergoing leadership successions today, there’s no time to waste.
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