Diversity on Boards

Why is Board Diversity Important?

Having a board with diverse perspectives is critically important. Each person will bring his or her own personal and professional contacts and life experiences to their service on a nonprofit board. With a diversity of experience, expertise, and perspectives a nonprofit is in a stronger position to face opportunities and challenges.

  • When an nonprofit's board reflects the diversity of the community served, the organization will be better able to build bridges to potential donors or policy makers in the community.
  • A diverse board will improve the nonprofit's ability to access resources in the community and to respond to external influences that are changing the environment in which it is working, or those served.
  • When a nonprofit board is facing a major decision, diverse perspectives on the board can help identify the opportunities and the risks.
  • Boards that are not diverse will be chasing their tails: if all the board members travel in the same social circle, identifying and cultivating new board members will be a challenge.

Diversity should be thought of as a basic indicator of a nonprofit’s capacity to sustain itself in the long term. Cultivate new board members who can expand the board’s collective cultural awareness. Look for the types of professional expertise, personal experiences, and geographic reach that can help the nonprofit respond to the community's future needs.

How Can My Organization Promote Board Diversity?

Successfully achieving diversity can be a challenge. When building a board, assess the current board to identify individual board members’ skills, professional expertise, and life experiences so that you can analyze what strengths you have today and what you will need in the future. Then consider what kind of people should be around the board table to make that happen. For certain nonprofits, specialized financial, or programmatic, expertise might be needed. What kind of inspiring leaders can help bring your board from “good to great?” Here are some questions you should ask yourself when attempting to achieve and maintain diversity on the board:

  1. What is the profile of your current board today? Conduct a self-assessment to find out. You could also use a tool, such as this Sample Board Composition Matrix to create a snapshot of the composition of your current board.
  2. What should the board look like in the future? Consider where the organization is going and what skills, experiences, contacts, professional and personal backgrounds will be most helpful to the organization in the short - and longer term.
  3. What are the objectives of the board? Set goals for expanding the profile of the board in certain areas. Start evaluating board prospects with those goals in mind, and make sure all the current board members know what to look for when they are considering future board member prospects.
  4. What is the board’s current “culture”? Is it welcoming to individuals of diverse backgrounds? When you invite someone to join the board you will want them to feel comfortable and become engaged with the mission, their role, and their colleagues on the board.

Visit the Leadership section of the National Council of Nonprofits' website for more information on this topic.

Also think about what a new board member's impression of your organization will be. Onboarding board members properly should be a priority. A formal orientation can help manage expectations and also be a good time to introduce veteran board members to the newcomers and establish mentoring relationships that can help knit together a diverse group.

The Next Generation of Board Members?

Age of board members is a type of diversity that has received much attention recently in the examination of “next generation” leadership. Review BoardSource's report, Next Generation and Governance, to learn how younger generations can add value to boards and read this post from the Nonprofit Law Blog on the issue of minors serving on nonprofit boards. The organization Youth on Board offers a self-assessment checklist on its website to help a nonprofit determine whether it is ready to involve youth in organizational decision-making. Innovation Center for Community & Youth Development is a source for discussion guides, toolkits, and publications on many topics involving youth/leadership/community building. And check out Youth Infusion if your organization is interested in consulting to help successfully engage youth.

Additional Resources

Also visit the section on Boards and Governance in the Council of Nonprofits' online bookstore.