BoardSource 2017 Finds a New Platform for Action in the Face of Declining Diversity

Source: NPQ

The 2017 version of Leading with Intent from BoardSource is a treasure trove of information about nonprofit board trends, but its purview is far too broad for us to manage in the context of one article. Therefore, NPQ will divide its coverage into a small series, with this first being the headliner. We mean for these pieces to further both exploration and action, so look for our webinar seriesthat will launch next week in combination with BoardSource.

After a fraught last few years in terms of national attention to issues of race, one would expect that nonprofit boards would demonstrate at least a modicum of advancement in the realm of diversity. The comparative statistics shown in Leading with Intent: 2017 National Index of Nonprofit Board Practices tell a different story. Based on a recent biennial survey, any advances between 2015 and 2017 regarding the leadership positions of board chair and CEO were marginal ones. The proportionate number of board members of color even decreased slightly, as the number of groups with all-white boards increased from 25 percent of those surveyed in 2015 to 27 percent now.

What’s worse yet is that few if any boards appear all that concerned about the issue. As Vernetta Walker, Chief Governance Officer and Vice President of BoardSource, says, that’s unacceptable in a sector that purports to represent whole communities.

The 2017 Leading with Intent report provides an entire range of information that nonprofit leaders should find enormously useful, and we’ll go into those issues later. But, this particular set of findings should be considered a burning platform for nonprofits in 2017. While differences in respondents may have some impact here, at the very least, the picture shows stagnation over the past two years with little evident motivation to change.


The Findings on Nonprofit Board Diversity

Proportion of CEOs that are Caucasian 90% 89%
Proportion of board chairs that are Caucasian 90% 89%
Proportion of board members that are Caucasian 80% 84%
Proportion of boards that are all Caucasian 25% 27%


According to the census, as of July 2016, white people (or Caucasians) who identify as neither Hispanic nor Latinx make up 61.3 percent of the population of the U.S.; add the Latinx-identified back in, and the total white population rises to 76.9 percent. (Latinx people were counted separately in the BoardSource study.)

The increase in the number of all-white boards is surely cause for alarm, but even more alarming is the low-priority status that boards have given to this longstanding problem. As BoardSource reports, 64 percent of the nonprofit CEOs surveyed are “somewhat dissatisfied” or “extremely dissatisfied” with the level of racial and ethnic diversity on their boards. Compare that with the 41 percent of surveyed board chairs who responded the same way.

In addition, as the report states, “Chief executive responses highlight an understanding of the many ways that diversity (or lack of diversity) can impact an organization’s reputation…80 percent of executives report that diversity and inclusion is important, or very important, to ‘enhancing the organization’s standing with the general public’ [as well as the] respect of funders and donors: 72 percent of executives report that diversity and inclusion is important, or very important, to ‘increase fundraising or expand donor networks.’” However, among those executives who called themselves extremely dissatisfied, only 25 percent reported that diversity was a priority in board recruitment.

“I am seeing more executives trying to push the envelope by keeping the issues on the table, but the problem isn’t always the executive,” says Walker, who works with many nonprofits as they try to work through a variety of issues, including their diversity and inclusion practices, “Quite often, it’s the board.”

Effective executives are constantly thinking about the changing environment and what their organizations need to change to make a difference, including the board’s racial/ethnic composition to more authentically represent the people they serve or to better understand different perspectives on issues they address. A homogenous board may not readily see or understand the impact of policies, practices, and decisions on racial and marginalized groups, or be willing to think differently about how it can create space for change—let alone take action. Chief executives can prioritize the issues, but the board has to step up for real traction.

In the organizations with boards that are entirely white, only 64 percent of executives feel that expanding the board’s racial and ethnic diversity is “important” or “extremely important,” and only 11 percent said diversity was a high priority in board recruitment.

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